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Bipolar Disorder


Topic Overview

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This topic discusses bipolar disorder in adults. If you are concerned that your child or teen may have bipolar disorder, see the topic Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is an illness that causes extreme mood changes from manic episodes of very high energy to the extreme lows of depression. It is also called manic-depressive disorder.

This illness can cause behavior so extreme that you cannot function at work, in family or social situations, or in relationships with others. Some people with bipolar disorder become suicidal.

Over 3 million Americans—about 1% of the population, or 1 out of 100 people—have bipolar disorder, and rates are similar in other countries.1

It's important to know that you're not alone. Talking with others who suffer from bipolar disorder may help you learn that there is hope for a better life. And treatment can help you get back in control.

What causes bipolar disorder?

The cause of bipolar disorder isn't completely understood. It tends to run in families. It may also be affected by your living environment or family situation. One possible cause is an imbalance of chemicals in the brain.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms depend on your mood swings, or "highs" and "lows." During a manic high, you may feel:

  • Very happy, energetic, or on edge.
  • Like you need very little sleep.
  • Overly self-confident.

Some people spend a lot of money or get involved in dangerous activities when they are manic. After a manic episode, you may return to normal. Or your mood may swing in the opposite direction to feelings of sadness, depression, and hopelessness. During a depressive episode, or low, you may have:

  • Trouble thinking and making decisions.
  • Memory problems.
  • Less interest in things you have enjoyed in the past.
  • Thoughts about killing yourself.

The mood swings of bipolar disorder can be mild or extreme. They may come on slowly over several days or weeks or suddenly over a few minutes or hours. These mood swings may last for a few hours or for several months.

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?

Bipolar disorder is hard to diagnose. First, your doctor or therapist will ask detailed questions about what kind of symptoms you have and how long they last. Your urine and blood may be tested to rule out other problems that could be causing your symptoms.

There are two types of bipolar disorder: I and II.

To be diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, you must have had:

  • A manic episode lasting at least a week (or less, if you had to be hospitalized).
  • During that time, three or more symptoms of mania, such as needing less sleep or feeling as if your thoughts are racing.

For bipolar II disorder, your doctor will look for the same symptoms, but the manic high may be less severe and shorter.

How is it treated?

Bipolar disorder is treatable. With treatment, which includes medicines and counseling, you can feel better.

You may need to try several medicines to find the combination that works for you.

  • Most people with bipolar disorder need to take a medicine called a mood stabilizer every day.
  • Medicines called antipsychotics can help get a manic phase under control.
  • Antidepressants are used carefully for episodes of depression, because they cause some people to move into a manic phase.

Counseling for you and your family is also an important treatment. It can help you cope with some of the work and relationship issues that the illness may cause.

You can do a few things on your own to help deal with bipolar disorder. These include regular activity, getting enough sleep, and learning to recognize early signs of highs and lows.

People often stop taking their medicines during a manic phase because they feel good. But this is a mistake. You must take your medicines regularly, even if you are feeling better.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about bipolar disorder:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with bipolar disorder:

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