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Patient information: Bipolar disorder (manic depression) (Beyond the Basics)

Jeffrey Stovall, MD
Section Editor
Paul Keck, MD
Deputy Editor
David Solomon, MD
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Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a mental health problem that causes extreme changes in mood. If you have bipolar disorder, you may sometimes feel excessively elated, impulsive, irritable, or irrational (called mania) or hypomanic (a milder form of mania). Other times you may feel excessively sad (called major depression).

Bipolar disorder can make it hard to do a good job at work or school, have relationships with friends and family, and it even increases the risk of suicide if it is not treated or treated incorrectly. However, a number of effective treatment options are available.

For many reasons, it may take many years to diagnose bipolar disorder. As an example, a person may have multiple episodes of depression before an episode of hypomania or mania.

More detailed information about bipolar disorder is available by subscription. (See "Bipolar disorder in adults: Epidemiology and pathogenesis" and "Bipolar disorder in adults: Pharmacotherapy for acute mania and hypomania" and "Bipolar disorder in adults: Choosing maintenance treatment" and "Bipolar disorder in adults and lithium: Pharmacology, administration, and side effects".)


The exact cause of bipolar disorder is not clear. The problem may be related to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. These chemicals allow cells to communicate with each other and play an essential role in all brain functions, including movement, sensation, memory, and emotions.

Approximately one to three percent of people worldwide have bipolar disorder. People with a family history of bipolar disorder are at increased risk of developing the condition. Most people develop the first symptoms of bipolar disorder between age 15 to 30 years; it is uncommon to develop the first symptoms of bipolar as a child or as an adult over the age of 65.


Mania — Mania causes you to feel abnormally and persistently happy, angry, hyperactive, impulsive, and irrational at different times. These feelings last at least one week, and may be severe enough that you need to be treated in a hospital. Other symptoms may include:

Feelings of special powers and superiority

Decreased need for sleep, restlessness

Talking excessively

Increased activity

Racing thoughts

Short attention span

Inappropriate laughing or joking, or getting into lots of arguments

Inappropriate spending sprees or sexual activity

Mania often causes difficulty maintaining relationships with friends and family, and can interfere with work or other responsibilities. During a manic episode, your moods can change rapidly from euphoria to depression or irritability.

Hypomania — Hypomania is less severe than mania, but it causes a change in mood that is abnormal. Hypomanic episodes are usually briefer than manic episodes, but last for at least four days. Hypomania may not seriously affect your ability to work or go to school, and some people actually function better during a hypomanic episode. Hypomania may not need to be treated in a hospital, but it should be treated with medicines because it may lead to a manic or depressive episode.

Depression — People with depression feel very sad and have trouble doing ordinary things like bathing, getting dressed, and cooking. During a depressive episode, you may feel sad most of the day or you may have little or no interest in any activity. Other symptoms may include:

Weight loss or gain (due to changes in how much you eat)

Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much

Feeling irritated easily

Fatigue, loss of energy, sluggishness

Feelings of worthlessness or guilt

Difficulty concentrating and making decisions

Recurring thoughts of death or suicide

(See "Patient information: Depression in adults (Beyond the Basics)".)

Alcohol and drugs — More than 60 percent of people with bipolar disorder abuse alcohol or drugs.

Suicide — The risk of suicide also is higher in people with bipolar disorder compared to people with other psychiatric illnesses (including depression). Suicide is often the result of feeling hopeless, and is more likely in people with severe symptoms who must be hospitalized for treatment. If a family member or friend mentions suicide, you should consider this a serious threat and immediately contact the person's doctor or nurse. If you are having thoughts of suicide, call your doctor or nurse or go to the nearest emergency department.


There is no test that can diagnose bipolar disorder. Instead, the diagnosis is based upon a medical and psychiatric history and a physical and mental status examination. Laboratory testing may be performed to rule out other diagnoses.


Treatment of mania focuses on managing symptoms and keeping you safe. In the early phase of mania (called the acute phase), you may be psychotic (having false, fixed beliefs or hearing voices or seeing things others cannot see or hear). You may not be able to make good decisions and you may be at risk of hurting yourself or others. You may need to be treated in a hospital temporarily, until your medicine begins to work.

Medicines are the main treatment for mania, and a number of medicines are available. It is not usually possible to know ahead of time which medicine will be the most effective and cause the fewest side effects. It may be necessary to try several medicines before finding the best one.

Treatment of mania continues until your symptoms completely resolve and you are able to function. Many people continue to take medicine for a long time to prevent a recurrence of mania.

Antipsychotic medicines — Antipsychotic medicines are often used first in the treatment of mania. They may be used alone or in combination with other drugs (see 'Other medications' below); combination therapy is usually recommended for patients with severe mania. Side effects are common. For example:

Certain antipsychotic medicines, such as olanzapine (brand name: Zyprexa), risperidone (brand name: Risperdal), and quetiapine (brand name: Seroquel) have a risk of weight gain, high blood sugar, diabetes mellitus, and high cholesterol.

The antipsychotic medicines ziprasidone (brand name: Geodon) and aripiprazole (brand name: Abilify) may work as well as other antipsychotic medicines, but with a lower risk of weight gain and diabetes.

Clozapine (brand name: Clozaril) is an antipsychotic medicine that may be particularly effective in patients who do not respond to other mood stabilizers or antipsychotics. However, it carries a risk of lowering the white blood cell count to a dangerously low level. Blood testing is required once per week.

Other medications — Medicines such as lithium, valproate (sample brand names: Depakene, Depakote), and carbamazepine (sample brand names: Carbatrol, Tegretol), are also often used in the treatment of mania or hypomania. All of these medicines may be effective, and the choice is often made based upon what medicines you have taken before, side effects, and any underlying medical illnesses.

Lithium — Lithium has been used for many years to treat mania. Common side effects of lithium can include frequent urination, tremor, loose stools, difficulty thinking clearly, or weight gain. Problems with kidney function, heart rhythm, or thyroid functioning can occur in people who take lithium for long periods of time.

A test to measure the lithium level in the blood is recommended regularly when taking lithium. Blood testing is usually done every 6 to 12 months once the lithium dose is stabilized.

Lithium can cause serious problems if you take an overdose or if your kidneys do not work normally. This can occur if you becomes severely dehydrated or take certain medicines with lithium. If you take lithium, talk to your healthcare provider before taking any new non-prescription or prescription medicines.

Valproate — Valproate is a medicine that is also effective in treating mania. It may be used instead of or in combination with lithium. Common side effects of valproate include weight gain, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, easy bruising, and tremor. Blood testing is usually done to check blood levels and to check for potential complications.

Carbamazepine — Carbamazepine is also helpful in the treatment of bipolar disorder. The most common side effects of carbamazepine include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, itching, and fluid retention. Blood testing is recommended to check blood levels and to check for potential complications.

Carbamazepine interferes with certain birth control methods (pill, vaginal ring, patch), making these methods less effective in preventing pregnancy (see 'Birth control' below).


Antipsychotics — Antipsychotic medicines may help to treat bipolar depression (see 'Antipsychotic medicines' above). In particular, olanzapine or quetiapine can be helpful for patients with bipolar depression.  In some cases, an antipsychotic medicine is combined with an antidepressant medicine.

Lamotrigine — Lamotrigine was developed to treat seizures, but it is also effective for people with bipolar depression. Routine blood tests are not needed for monitoring.

Lamotrigine can have serious side effects when taken with other medicines; be sure that your healthcare provider has an updated list of your prescription and nonprescription medicines. An infrequent but serious rash (called Stevens-Johnson syndrome) can occur early in treatment; call your healthcare provider if you notice a new rash while taking lamotrigine.

Lithium — Lithium is also commonly used in the treatment of bipolar depression. (See 'Lithium' above.)

Antidepressants — Antidepressants are sometimes used to treat people with bipolar depression, sometimes in combination with a mood stabilizer. However, people with bipolar disorder who use antidepressants must be monitored closely because there is a chance that antidepressants can cause a manic episode.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) — During electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), an electrical current is passed through the brain, which in turn causes chemical changes that can relieve severe depression. While scientists do not yet fully understand exactly how ECT does this, they know it causes helpful changes to the molecules and cells of the brains of people with depression. ECT is especially effective for people with severe, life-threatening depression that has not responded to medicines. There is evidence that ECT may be effective in treating mania as well. (See "Patient information: Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) (Beyond the Basics)".)

Patients who undergo ECT are given general anesthesia to induce sleep and prevent discomfort. The patient is monitored carefully before, during, and after the treatment. Side effects of this therapy include brief confusion and memory loss. Although ECT has often been negatively portrayed in the media, it often provides rapid and dramatic relief of depression and has few side effects. ECT can be used in pregnant women and in those who cannot tolerate antidepressant or mood stabilizing medicines, and is especially useful for those who need a treatment that begins working rapidly.


Medicines — Once the worst symptoms of mania or depression are under control, treatment focuses on preventing a recurrence. People who have suffered a manic episode are often advised to continue taking medicine(s) to control bipolar disorder. This usually includes a single mood stabilizing medicine, such as lithium or valproate. Other medicines may also be recommended if, for example, a single drug is not helpful or you cannot tolerate the side effects.

Psychotherapy (counseling) — Although medicines are the treatment of choice for bipolar disorder, counseling and talk therapy also have an important role in treatment. This is especially true after an acute episode has passed.

Psychotherapy may include individual counseling as well as education, marital and family therapy, or treatment of alcohol and/or drug abuse. Therapy can help you to stick with your medicine, which can decrease the risk of relapse and the need for hospitalization.


Pregnancy — Women who are taking medicines for bipolar disorder and considering pregnancy should talk with their doctor or nurse before trying to get pregnant. If you take medicine for bipolar and discover you are pregnant, do not stop your medicine suddenly. Instead, speak with your healthcare provider to determine if you should continue your medicine, change to another medicine, or slowly taper the medicine.

The decision to continue taking medicine during pregnancy is a hard one because of the potential risks to you (if you are not treated or undertreated), your developing baby, and your family. You should discuss all of the risks and benefits of treatment with a knowledgeable and experienced healthcare provider who can help to decide which treatment, if any, is best.

During your discussion, consider the following issues:

Infants of women who take lithium during the first trimester of pregnancy have an increased risk of heart malformations. However, the risk is very low. An ultrasound of the baby's heart is usually recommended at 18 to 20 weeks of pregnancy to screen for heart defects.

Lithium can also cause complications if taken later in pregnancy. However, women who require lithium are often advised to continue taking it, though the dose may be adjusted. There are no known long-term behavioral effects of lithium in children.

Anticonvulsant medicines, including carbamazepine, lamotrigine, and valproate, increase the risk of birth defects and are not usually recommended during pregnancy.

If you continue to take valproate or carbamazepine, you should take a supplement containing 4 milligrams of folic acid starting 3 months before trying to become pregnant and continuing for at least 3 months after becoming pregnant. This may reduce the risk of a type of birth defect, known as neural tube defects, which may be more common in infants of mothers who take valproate or carbamazepine.

Newer antipsychotic medicines, including olanzapine and quetiapine, are not known to cause birth defects, but there is not as much information about the safety of these medicines during pregnancy. In addition, there are no long-term data about how these medicines could potentially affect the child.

The potential risks of antidepressant medicines are discussed in a separate article. (See "Patient information: Depression treatment options for adults (Beyond the Basics)", section on 'Depression and pregnancy'.)

Birth control — Some of the medicines used to treat bipolar disorder, including carbamazepine, interact with birth control pills, skin patch, and vaginal ring. As a result, women who take these medicines should consider another method of birth control (eg, an injection of depo-medroxyprogesterone acetate, condoms, or an intrauterine device). (See "Patient information: Birth control; which method is right for me? (Beyond the Basics)".)

The blood level of one medicine, lamotrigine, is decreased in women who take birth control pills. Some women who take lamotrigine and a birth control pill will need a higher dose of lamotrigine.


Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient information: Bipolar disorder (The Basics)
Patient information: Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient information: Depression in adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Depression treatment options for adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Birth control; which method is right for me? (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in adults: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical features, course, assessment, and diagnosis
Bipolar disorder in adults: Epidemiology and pathogenesis
Bipolar disorder in adults: Choosing maintenance treatment
Bipolar disorder in adults: Pharmacotherapy for acute mania and hypomania
Diagnosis of delirium and confusional states
First-generation antipsychotic medications: Pharmacology, administration, and comparative side effects
First generation (Typical) antipsychotic medication poisoning
Postpartum psychosis: Epidemiology, clinical manifestations, assessment, and diagnosis
Treatment of postpartum psychosis
Seasonal affective disorder
Second-generation antipsychotic medications: Pharmacology, administration, and side effects
Second generation (atypical) antipsychotic medication poisoning
Tricyclic and tetracyclic drugs: Pharmacology, administration, and side effects
Clinical manifestations, differential diagnosis, and initial management of psychosis in adults

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Library of Medicine


National Institute of Mental Health


Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)


Mental Health America


National Alliance for the Mentally Ill



Literature review current through: Oct 2015. | This topic last updated: Oct 2, 2015.
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