Bipolar Disorder/Manic Depression Facts


Amy VanStee

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Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is characterized by periodic episodes of extreme elation, elevated mood, or irritability (also called mania) countered by periodic, classic depressive symptoms.

Bipolar disorder is a type of affective disorder or mood disorder. It affects more than 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6 percent of Americans ages 18 and older, in a given year. Bipolar disorder complicates every aspect of life including a person's mood, behavior, cognition, sleep, employment and relationships.

Affecting men and women equally--although women are more likely to experience more depressive and fewer manic symptoms--bipolar disorder often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. In fact, the average age for a first manic episode is during a person's early 20s. (When symptoms are present before the age of 12, they're often confused with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.) People with the condition can experience dramatic mood swings that take them from euphoria to depression, from recklessness to listlessness, often in short periods of time. Or the mood swings can be less dramatic, ranging from an increase in energy alternating with episodes of depression.

Bipolar disorder is likely to run in families and, in some cases, is believed to be hereditary. Researchers have found several genes that may contribute to bipolar disorder, but are still working to identify a specific gene or genes responsible for this disorder. ​​Even so, for any individual, environmental influences still play a huge role in the development of bipolar disorder.

For a diagnosis of bipolar disorder to be made, an individual must exhibit both depressive and manic symptoms to a varying degree, depending on the severity of the disorder. Because depression often co-exists with other medical conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, and other psychiatric disorders, such as substance abuse or anxiety disorders, seeking early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to recovery. A diagnosis is often made after a psychiatrist or other mental health professional performs a careful psychiatric exam and medical history.

Treatment for bipolar disorder may include one or more of the following:

  • Medication: Mood-stabilizing anticonvulsants such as lithium, valproate, or carbamazepine, and/or antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Paxil. Caution should be used when treating with antidepressants alone, as this can trigger episodes of mania.

  • Psychotherapy: Most often cognitive-behavioral and/or interpersonal therapy that's focused on changing the person's distorted views, working through difficult relationships, and identifying stressors

  • Electroconvulsive therapy: For resistant cases

Recognizing the varied and extreme mood swings associated with bipolar disorder is crucial in obtaining effective treatment and avoiding the potentially painful consequences of the reckless, manic behavior.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 26, 2017

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