Font Size

Bipolar Disorder

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder (BD) is a type of mood disorder. Bipolar disorder was called manic-depressive disorder in the past. It is a psychiatric illness that potentially may cause major disruptions in lifestyle and health.

  • Everyone has occasional highs and lows in their moods. But people with bipolar disorder have extreme mood swings. They can go from feeling very sad, despairing, helpless, worthless, and hopeless (depression) to feeling as if they are on top of the world, hyperactive, creative, irritable or euphoric, and grandiose (mania). This disease is called bipolar disorder because the mood of a person with bipolar disorder can alternate between two completely opposite poles, euphoric happiness, and extreme sadness.
  • Symptoms of both mania and depression sometimes occur together in what is called "mixed state."
  • The extremes of mood usually occur in cycles. In between these mood swings, people with bipolar disorder are able to function normally, hold a job, and have a normal family life. The episodes of mood swings tend to become closer together with age.
  • When a person is in the grip of this disease, chaos can occur. Bipolar disorder can cause major disruption of family and finances, loss of job, and marital problems.
  • Severe depression can be life-threatening. It may be associated with thoughts of suicide, actual acts of suicide, and even acts of homicide in some cases.
  • Extreme mania can lead to aggressive behavior, potentially dangerous risk-taking behaviors, and homicidal acts.
  • A number of people with bipolar disorder may turn to drugs and alcohol to "self-treat" their emotional disorder, resulting in substance abuse and dependence.

Most people start showing signs of bipolar disorder in their late teens (the average age of onset is 21 years). These signs may be dismissed as "growing pains" or normal teenage behavior. On occasion, some people have their first symptoms during childhood, but the condition can often be misdiagnosed at this age and improperly labeled as a behavioral problem. Bipolar disorder may not be properly diagnosed until the sufferer is 25-40 years of age, at which time the pattern of symptoms may become clearer.

Bipolar disorder occurs in both men and women. About 5.7 million people in the United States have the disorder. There is no racial group that is more afflicted by this disease.

Because of the extreme and risky behavior that goes with bipolar disorder, it is very important that the disorder be identified. With proper and early diagnosis, this mental condition can be treated. Bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that will require proper management for the duration of a person's life.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder has not been discovered, but many experts believe that multiple factors are involved which act together to cause the disease. Bipolar disorder may result from a chemical imbalance within the brain. The brain's functions are controlled by chemicals called neurotransmitters. An imbalance in the levels of one of these neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, may cause bipolar disorder. When levels of this chemical are too high, mania occurs. When levels of norepinephrine drop below normal levels, a person may experience depression. Levels of other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are also believed to play a role.

There is a significant genetic component to bipolar disorder. If a family member has bipolar disorder, other family members may be at risk. The identical twin of a person with bipolar disorder is at the highest risk for developing the condition. However, stress of some kind often is needed to trigger the onset of the disease. The disease does not occur just because of one gene, and the cause of the disease is likely a combination of multiple genetic and environmental factors.

Sometimes a period of emotional stress, drug use, an illness, or another event seems to trigger the onset of the disease. Stresses can also trigger a manic or depressive episode in people who are known to have the condition.

Not everyone with severe mood swings or a change in personality has bipolar disorder. Mood swings can be caused by other medical conditions that need to be diagnosed and treated properly. Medical diseases and medications that may have symptoms similar to bipolar disorder include the following:

Other psychiatric conditions and drug abuse may also mimic bipolar disorder:

Last Reviewed 11/21/2017
Medical Author:

Must Read Articles Related to Bipolar Disorder Health

Anxiety Anxiety as a medical condition is characterized ...learn more >>
CT Scan (CAT Scan, Computerized Axial Tomography)
CT Scan What is a CT scan? Computerized tomography scans (CT scans) are important diagnostic tools for a variety of medical conditions. Some areas of the body frequentl...learn more >>
Electrolytes Electrolyes, including
  • sodium,
  • potassium, and
  • magnesium,
are chemicals that help the cells and organs of the body f...learn more >>

Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Bipolar Disorder:

Bipolar Disorder - Symptoms

What are your bipolar disorders symptoms?

Bipolar Disorder - Effective Treatments

What kinds of treatments have been effective for your bipolar disorder?

Person with bipolar disorder

Types of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar I vs. Bipolar II

  • In order to receive the diagnosis of bipolar I disorder, a person must experience at least one full-blown manic episode in their lifetime.
  • Individuals with bipolar II disorder experience at least one hypomanic episode, in that they have symptoms less severe than fully manic symptoms.

Medical Dictionary