Bipolar, or manic-depressive disorder, is a mood disorder that causes radical emotional changes and mood swings, from manic highs to depressive lows. The majority of bipolar individuals experience alternating episodes of mania and depression.
In the United States alone, bipolar disorder afflicts approximately 2.3 million people, and nearly 20% of this population will attempt suicide without effective treatment intervention. The average age at onset of bipolar disorder is from adolescence through the early twenties. However, because of the complexity of the disorder, a correct diagnosis can be delayed for several years or more. In a survey of bipolar patients conducted by the National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMDA), one-half of respondents reported visiting three or more professionals before receiving a correct diagnosis, and over one-third reported a wait of 10 years or more before they were correctly diagnosed.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), the diagnostic standard for mental health professionals in the United States, defines four separate categories of bipolar disorder: bipolar I, bipolar II, cyclothymia, and bipolar not-otherwise-specified (NOS).
Bipolar I disorder is characterized by manic episodes, the "high" of the manic-depressive cycle. A bipolar patient experiencing mania often has feelings of self-importance, elation, talkativeness, increased sociability, and a desire to embark on goal-oriented activities, coupled with the characteristics of irritability, impatience, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and a decreased need for sleep. Usually this manic period is followed by a period of depression, although a few bipolar I individuals may not experience a major depressive episode. Mixed states, where both manic or hypomanic symptoms and depressive symptoms occur at the same time, also occur frequently with bipolar I patients (for example, depression with racing thoughts of mania). Also, dysphoric mania is common (mania characterized by anger and irritability).
Bipolar II disorder is characterized by major depressive episodes alternating with episodes of hypomania, a milder form of mania. Bipolar depression may be difficult to distinguish from a unipolar major depressive episode. Patients with bipolar depression tend to have extremely low energy, retarded mental and physical processes, and more profound fatigue (for example, hypersomnia; a sleep disorder marked by a need for excessive sleep or sleepiness when awake) than unipolar depressives.
Cyclothymia refers to the cycling of hypomanic episodes with depression that does not reach major depressive proportions. One-third of patients with cyclothymia will develop bipolar I or II disorder later in life.
A phenomenon known as rapid cycling occurs in up to 20% of bipolar I and II patients. In rapid cycling, manic and depressive episodes must alternate frequently, at least four times in 12 months, to meet the diagnostic definition. In some cases of "ultra-rapid cycling," the patient may bounce between manic and depressive states several times within a 24-hour period. This condition is very hard to distinguish from mixed states.
Bipolar NOS is a category for bipolar states that do not clearly fit into the bipolar I, II, or cyclothymia diagnoses.
Causes & symptoms
The source of bipolar disorder has not been clearly defined. Because two-thirds of bipolar patients have a family history of affective or emotional disorders, researchers have searched for a genetic link to the disorder. Several studies have uncovered a number of possible genetic connections to the predisposition for bipolar disorder. Recent studies emphasize a hereditary connection and early research links several chromosomes, one particularly related to bipolar II, to development of the disorder. A 2003 study found that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder could have similar genetic causes that arise from certain problems with genes associated with myelin development in the central nervous system. (Myelin is a white, fat-like substance that forms a sort of layer or sheath around nerve fibers.)
Another possible biological cause under investigation is the presence of an excessive calcium build-up in the cells of bipolar patients. Also, dopamine and other neurochemical transmitters appear to be implicated in bipolar disorder and these are under intense investigation.
Over one-half of patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder have a history of substance abuse. There is a high rate of association between cocaine abuse and bipolar disorder. Some studies have shown up to 30% of abusers meeting the criteria for bipolar disorder. The emotional and physical highs and lows of cocaine use correspond to the manic depression of the bipolar patient, making the disorder difficult to diagnose.
For some bipolar patients, manic and depressive episodes coincide with seasonal changes. Depressive episodes are typical during winter and fall, and manic episodes are more probable in the spring and summer months.
Symptoms of bipolar depressive episodes include low energy levels, feelings of despair, difficulty concentrating, extreme fatigue, and psychomotor retardation (slowed mental and physical capabilities). Manic episodes are characterized by feelings of euphoria, lack of inhibitions, racing thoughts, diminished need for sleep, talkativeness, risk taking, and irritability. In extreme cases, mania can induce hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms such as grandiose illusions.
Bipolar disorder usually is diagnosed and treated by a psychiatrist and/or a psychologist with medical assistance. In addition to an interview, several clinical inventories or scales may be used to assess the patient's mental status and determine the presence of bipolar symptoms. These include the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory III (MCMI-III), Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory II (MMPI-2), the Internal State Scale (ISS), the Self-Report Manic Inventory (SRMI), and the Young Mania Rating Scale (YMRS). The tests are verbal and/or written and are administered in both hospital and outpatient settings.
Psychologists and psychiatrists typically use the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) as a guideline for diagnosis of bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. DSM-IV describes a manic episode as an abnormally elevated or irritable mood lasting a period of at least one week that is distinguished by at least three of the mania symptoms: inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, talkativeness, racing thoughts, distractibility, increase in goal-directed activity, or excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences. If the mood of the patient is irritable and not elevated, four of the symptoms are required.
Although many clinicians find the criteria too rigid, a hypomanic diagnosis requires a duration of at least four days with at least three of the symptoms indicated for manic episodes (four if mood is irritable and not elevated). DSM-IV notes that unlike manic episodes, hypomanic episodes do not cause a marked impairment in social or occupational functioning, do not require hospitalization, and do not have psychotic features. In addition, because hypomanic episodes are characterized by high energy and goal directed activities and often result in a positive outcome, or are perceived in a positive manner by the patient, bipolar II disorder can go undiagnosed.
In late 2001, a study reported at an international psychiatric conference that impulsivity remains a key distinguishing characteristic for bipolar disorder, at least when patients are in manic phases.
Bipolar symptoms often present differently in children and adolescents. Manic episodes in these age groups typically are characterized by more psychotic features than in adults, which may lead to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. Children and adolescents also tend toward irritability and aggressiveness instead of elation. Further, symptoms tend to be chronic, or ongoing, rather than acute, or episodic. Bipolar children are easily distracted, impulsive, and hyperactive, which can lead to a misdiagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Furthermore, their aggression often leads to violence, which may be misdiagnosed as a conduct disorder.
Substance abuse, thyroid disease, and use of prescription or over-the-counter medication can mask or mimic the presence of bipolar disorder. In cases of substance abuse, the patient must ordinarily undergo a period of detoxification and abstinence before a mood disorder is diagnosed and treatment begins.
Alternative treatments for bipolar disorder generally are considered to be complementary treatments to conventional therapies. General recommendations for controlling bipolar symptoms include maintaining a calm environment, avoiding overstimulation, getting plenty of rest, regular exercise, and proper diet. Psychotherapy and counseling are generally recommended treatments for the disease, whether treated alternatively or allopathically. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be a useful tool in helping patients and their families adjust to the disorder and in reducing the risk of suicide. Also, educational counseling is recommended for the patient and family. In fact, a 2003 report revealed that people on medication for bipolar disorder have better results if they also participate in family-focused therapy.
Chinese herbs also may help to soften mood swings. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) remedies are prescribed based on the patient's overall constitution and the presentation of symptoms. These remedies can stabilize moods, not just treat swings in mood. A TCM practitioner might recommend a mixture called the Iron Filings Combination (which includes the Chinese herbs asparagus, ophiopogon, fritillaria, arisaema, orange peel, polygala, acorus, forsythia, hoelen, fu-shen, scrophularia, uncaria stem, salvia, and iron filings) to treat certain types of mania in the bipolar patient. There are other formulas for depression. A trained practitioner should guide all of these remedies. Compliance can be better with natural remedies if they work. These remedies do not flatten moods and people in manic states do not like to be suppressed.
Acupuncture can be used for treatment to help maintain a more even temperament.
Biofeedback is effective in helping some patients control symptoms such as irritability, poor self control, racing thoughts, and sleep problems. A diet low in vanadium (a mineral found in meats and other foods) and high in vitamin C may be helpful in reducing depression.
In 2003, a report stated that rhythm therapy, or simply taking steps to go to bed and wake up at consistent times each day, helps some people with bipolar disorder maintain mood stability, especially when faced with psychosocial stress.
Recommended herbal remedies to ease depressive episodes may include damiana (Turnera diffusa), ginseng (Panax ginseng), kola (Cola nitida), lady's slipper (Cypripedium calceolus), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), lime blossom (Tilia x vulgaris), oats (Avena sativa), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia), St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), and vervain (Verbena officinalis).
Allopathic treatment of bipolar disorder is usually by means of medication. A combination of mood stabilizing agents with antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants is used to regulate manic and depressive episodes.
Mood stabilizing agents such as lithium, carbamazepine, and valproate are prescribed to regulate the manic highs and lows of bipolar disorder:
- Lithium (Cibalith-S, Eskalith, Lithane, Lithobid, Lithonate, Lithotabs) is one of the oldest and most frequently prescribed drugs available for the treatment of bipolar mania and depression. Lithium has also been shown to be effective in regulating bipolar depression, but is not recommended for mixed mania. Possible side effects of the drug include weight gain, thirst, nausea and hand tremors. Prolonged lithium use may also cause hyperthyroidism (a disease of the thryoid that is marked by heart palpitations, nervousness, the presence of goiter, sweating, and a wide array of other symptoms).
- Carbamazepine (Tegretol, Atretol) is an anticonvulsant drug usually prescribed in conjunction with other mood stabilizing agents. The drug is often used to treat bipolar patients who have not responded well to lithium therapy. Blurred vision and abnormal eye movement are two possible side effects of carbamazepine therapy.
- Valproate (divalproex sodium, or Depakote; valproic acid, or Depakene) is one of the few drugs available that has been proven effective in treating rapid cycling bipolar and mixed states patients. Valproate is prescribed alone or in combination with carbamazepine and/or lithium. Stomach cramps, indigestion, diarrhea, hair loss, appetite loss, nausea, and unusual weight loss or gain are some of the common side effects of valproate.
Because antidepressants may stimulate manic episodes in some bipolar patients, their use is typically short-term. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or, less often, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are prescribed for episodes of bipolar depression. Tricyclic antidepressants used to treat unipolar depression may trigger rapid cycling in bipolar patients and are, therefore, not a preferred treatment option for bipolar depression.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), has a high success rate for treating both unipolar and bipolar depression, and mania. However, because of the convenience of drug treatment and the stigma sometimes attached to ECT therapy, ECT usually is employed after all pharmaceutical treatment options have been explored. ECT is given under anesthesia and patients are given a muscle relaxant medication to prevent convulsions. The treatment consists of a series of electrical pulses that move into the brain through electrodes on the patient's head. Although the exact mechanisms behind the success of ECT therapy are not known, it is believed that this electrical current alters the electrochemical processes of the brain, consequently relieving depression. In bipolar patients, ECT often is used in conjunction with drug therapy.
Long-acting benzodiazepines such as clonazepam (Klonapin) and alprazolam (Xanax) are used for rapid treatment of manic symptoms to calm and sedate patients until mania or hypomania have waned and mood stabilizing agents can take effect. Neuroleptics such as chlorpromazine (Thorazine) and haloperidol (Haldol) also are used to control mania while a mood stabilizer such as lithium or valproate takes effect. Clozapine (Clozaril) is an atypical antipsychotic medication used to control manic episodes in patients who have not responded to typical mood stabilizing agents. The drug also has been a useful prophylactic, or preventative treatment, in some bipolar patients.
The treatment rTMS, or repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation, is a relatively new and still experimental treatment for the depressive phase of bipolar disorder. In rTMS, a large magnet is placed on the patient's head and magnetic fields of different frequency are generated to stimulate the left front cortex of the brain. Unlike ECT, rTMS requires no anesthesia and does not induce seizures.
While most patients will show some positive response to treatment, response varies widely, from full recovery to a complete lack of response to all treatments, alternative or allopathic. Drug therapies frequently need adjustment to achieve the maximum benefit for the patient. Bipolar disorder is a chronic recurrent illness in over 90% of those afflicted, and one that requires lifelong observation and treatment after diagnosis. Patients with untreated or inadequately treated bipolar disorder have a suicide rate of 15-25% and a nine-year decrease in life expectancy. With proper treatment, the life expectancy of the bipolar patient will increase by nearly seven years and work productivity increases by 10 years.
The ongoing medical management of bipolar disorder is critical to preventing relapse, or recurrence, of manic episodes. Even in carefully controlled treatment programs, bipolar patients may experience recurring episodes of the disorder. Patient education in the form of psychotherapy or self-help groups is crucial for training bipolar patients to recognize signs of mania and depression and to take an active part in their treatment program.
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American Psychiatric Association (APA). Office of Public Affairs. 1400 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. (202) 682-6119. http://www.psych.org/.
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 1015, Arlington, VA 22203-3754. (800) 950-6264. http://www.nami.org.
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National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). 5600 Fishers Lane, Rm. 7C-02, Bethesda, MD 20857. (301) 443-4513. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/.
- Anticonvulsant medication
- —A drug used to prevent convulsions or seizures; often prescribed in the treatment of epilepsy. Several anticonvulsant medications have been found effective in the treatment of bipolar disorder.
- Antipsychotic medication
- —A drug used to treat psychotic symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations, in which patients are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality.
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