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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.
Bipolar disorder is an illness where a person has episodes of very high energy to the extreme lows of depression. It is also called manic-depressive disorder.
This illness can cause behaviour so extreme that you cannot function at work, in family or social situations, or in relationships with others. Some people with bipolar disorder have suicidal thoughts.
About 1% of the population, or 1 out of 100 people, have bipolar disorder.footnote 1
It's important to know that you're not alone. Talking with others who experience bipolar disorder may help you learn that there is hope for a better life. And treatment can help you get back in control.
The cause of bipolar disorder isn't well understood. But experts believe many factors may be involved. It tends to run in families. You are at greater risk of having bipolar disorder if a close family member has it.
The symptoms depend on your mood swings, or "highs" and "lows." During an episode of mania, you may feel:
Some people spend a lot of money or get involved in dangerous activities during episodes of mania. After a manic episode, you may return to a period of wellness. Or you may have a depressive episode with feelings of sadness, low energy, and hopelessness. During a depressive episode, or low, you may have:
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.
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:
For bipolar II disorder, your doctor will look for the same symptoms, but the manic episode may be less severe and shorter.
Bipolar disorder is treatable. With treatment, which includes medicines and counselling, you can feel better.
You may need to try several medicines to find the combination that works for you.
Counselling for you and your family is also an important treatment. It can help you understand bipolar disorder and learn important skills like solving problems and managing stress.
You can do a few things on your own to manage your bipolar disorder. These include regular activity, getting enough sleep, and learning to recognize early signs of highs and lows.
People may consider stopping taking their medicines because they feel good. This can lead to relapse into an episode of mania. Getting help early and having a plan with your care team and family to prevent relapse can help continue your recovery.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
The cause of bipolar disorder is not well understood. But experts believe many factors may be involved. It tends to run in families. You are at greater risk of having bipolar disorder if a close family member has it.
Antidepressant medicines can trigger a manic episode in a person who has bipolar disorder. But this may occur before the person is diagnosed, while he or she is seeking treatment for an episode of depression.
Sleep deprivation or substance use, including caffeine, can cause a person with bipolar disorder to have a manic episode.
Bipolar disorder causes extreme mood swings, from feeling overly energetic (mania) to feeling very sad or having low energy (depression).footnote 2
Mania may make you:
Depression may make you:
Some people may have bipolar disorder with mixed symptoms. Their highs and lows of mania and depression occur together. This makes the disorder challenging to treat and very frustrating for you and for those around you. It can also lead to hospitalization if your daily functioning becomes impaired.
If you have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, you may have at least four episodes of depression, mania, or both within a 12-month period. You may go directly from a low to a high. Or you may have a short time lapse between the two extreme moods.
In addition to changes in mood, some people with bipolar disorder also have symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, or symptoms of psychosis.
With bipolar disorder, you go back and forth between highs and lows of mania and depression. In between, you may return completely to normal or have some remaining symptoms. The extreme mood changes may come on suddenly or appear more slowly.
During a manic episode, you may go from feeling abnormally happy and productive to behaving irresponsibly and sleeping very little. After this manic high, your mood may return to normal. Or it may swing in the opposite direction. You may feel useless and extremely sad. And you may lose interest in things you've enjoyed in the past.
Men tend to have more manic highs, and women tend to have more lows of depression.
At first, stress may trigger depression or mania. But as the illness progresses, mood swings may not be caused by any specific event. Without treatment, your bipolar disorder may get worse. This can cause you to move more often between mania and depression.
People with bipolar disorder—men more often than women—may have substance use disorder, especially during manic episodes.footnote 4 A substance use disorder may affect treatment and interfere with taking medicines as prescribed. Other disorders that may occur along with this disorder include:footnote 5
These illnesses need to be treated along with bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder can be passed down through families. If anyone in your family has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, your risk of having it is higher.
Some things can increase your risk of a manic episode or depression. These include:
Alcohol or drug use or abuse puts you at a high risk for having a relapse of mood disturbances.footnote 6
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:
Keep the number for a suicide crisis centre on or near your phone. Go to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention web page at http://suicideprevention.ca/need-help to find a suicide crisis prevention centre in your area.
Call a doctor now if:
Seek care soon if:
To find out if you have bipolar disorder, your doctor will ask detailed questions about your symptoms. You will be asked how long your symptoms last and how often you have them. Your doctor will ask about your family history and may do a mental health assessment.
Blood and urine tests, such as a test of your thyroid, may be done to make sure another problem isn't causing your symptoms. A toxicology screen looks at blood, urine, or hair for the presence of drugs.
The earlier the disease is confirmed, the sooner you can get treatment, feel better, and improve the quality of your life. This can also reduce your risk of other health problems, such as substance use disorder.
Bipolar disorder is treated with a combination of medicines and counselling. It's important to take your medicines exactly as prescribed, even when you feel well. Your doctor may have you try different combinations of medicines to find what's right for you.
Your family doctor or general practitioner can prescribe medicines to treat bipolar disorder. But you will probably be referred to a psychiatrist, who is trained specifically to treat mental disorders.
Many people don't get help for bipolar disorder. You may not seek treatment because you think the symptoms aren't bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But treatment can help you manage the highs and lows.
If you need help deciding whether to see your doctor, see some reasons why people don't get help and how to overcome them.
Treatment often starts with helping you through an "acute" phase or manic episode. You may be suicidal or psychotic or using such poor judgment that you are in danger of harming yourself. Your doctor may decide that you should be hospitalized for your own safety, especially if he or she thinks you are suicidal.
Medicines that may be used include mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. Over time, these medicines will be adjusted with the goal of preventing manic and depressive episodes. It may take months for your symptoms to go away and for you to be able to maintain a normal routine of work and activity. To learn more, see Medications.
Counselling is also an important part of treatment. It can help you cope with problems that may come up in your work or relationships because of bipolar disorder. To learn more, see Other Treatment.
You can also do some things on your own to help manage your symptoms and maintain a normal routine. Joining a support group to talk with others who have bipolar disorder can help. To learn more, see Home Treatment.
Bipolar disorder cannot be prevented. But often the mood swings can be controlled with medicines. And there are many things you can do for yourself to help manage highs and lows. To learn more, see Home Treatment.
Home treatment is important in bipolar disorder. There are many things you can do to help control mood swings. You don't have to do them all at once. Try to do one thing, such as eating a healthy diet, then add another when you can.
Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet. A balanced diet includes foods from different food groups, such as whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables, and protein. Eat a variety of foods from each group. (For example, eat different fruits from the fruit group instead of only apples.) A varied diet helps you get all the nutrients you need. No single food provides every nutrient.
Family members often feel helpless when a loved one is depressed or manic. But you can help.
Know the signs
Get help for you
If a loved one has bipolar disorder, it may be helpful for you to get counselling to deal with its impact on your own life. Manic episodes can be particularly hard. Talk with a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a social worker, or a mental health counsellor for your own therapy.
Counselling can also be helpful for a child who has a bipolar parent. The parent's mood swings may negatively affect the child. This can cause tearfulness, anger, depression, or rebellious behaviour.
Find out how to help a person during a manic episode.
To learn more about how you can help your loved one with depression, see:
Medicines, when taken as prescribed, can help control bipolar mood swings. Your doctor will vary the amounts and combinations of your medicines according to your symptoms, which type of bipolar disorder you have, and how you respond to the medicines.
About 1 out of 3 people will be completely free of symptoms of bipolar disorder by taking mood stabilizer medicine, such as carbamazepine or lithium, for life.footnote 7
Taking medicines during pregnancy for bipolar disorder may increase the risk of birth defects. If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, talk to your doctor. You may need to keep taking medicine if your bipolar disorder is severe. Your doctor can help weigh the risks of treatment against the risk of harm to your pregnancy.
Several medicines are used to treat bipolar disorder. It may take time to find the treatment that works best for you. The most common medicines used are:
When you and your doctor are discussing your medicines, think about whether your lifestyle allows you to take medicines on time every day. A medicine you only take once a day may work best for you if you have a hard time remembering to take your medicines.
During your doctor's appointment, ask about:
You'll need to check in with your doctor regularly when taking medicines for bipolar disorder.
If you are prescribed carbamazepine, lithium, or valproate, you will need regular blood tests to monitor the amount of medicine in your blood. Too much lithium in your bloodstream may lead to serious side effects. Blood tests can also help show how medicines are affecting your liver, kidneys, and thyroid gland or to measure the number of blood cells in your body.
The use of antidepressants alone has been linked to an increase in manic episodes. Antidepressant treatment needs to be monitored closely to avoid causing a manic episode.
Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued advisories on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. It is not recommended that people stop using these medicines. Instead, a person taking antidepressants should be watched for warning signs of suicide. This is especially important at the beginning of treatment or when doses are changed.
The FDA has also issued a warning on anticonvulsants and the risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts. The FDA does not recommend that people stop using these medicines. Instead, people who take anticonvulsant medicine should be watched closely for warning signs of suicide. People who take anticonvulsant medicine and who are worried about this side effect should talk to a doctor.
Almost all people who have bipolar disorder need medicine. But counselling is also important to help you cope with work and relationship struggles related to your illness.
No matter which type of counselling you choose, establish a long-term relationship with a counsellor you like. The counsellor will help you recognize personality changes that show when you are moving into a mood swing. Getting early treatment can reduce the length of the high or low. See some tips for finding a counsellor or therapist.
In some cases, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be an option. In this procedure, brief electrical stimulation to the brain is given through electrodes placed on the head. The stimulation produces a short seizure that is thought to balance brain chemicals.
A few studies suggest that adding omega-3 fatty acids to medicine (such as lithium) can help reduce the depressive symptoms in some people. Omega-3 fatty acids don't seem to have any affect on the manic symptoms of bipolar disorder. And omega-3 fatty acids alone are not a good treatment for bipolar disease. They are not a replacement for medicine or other therapy used to treat bipolar disorder.footnote 8, footnote 9
CitationsBrent DA, Pan RJ (2008). Bipolar disorders. In MH Ebert et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Psychiatry, 2nd ed., pp. 607–611. New York: McGraw-Hill.American Psychiatric Association (2013). Bipolar and related disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., pp. 123–154. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Akiskal HS (2009). Mood disorders: Clinical features. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1693–1733. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.American Psychiatric Association (2002). Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with bipolar disorder (revision). American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(4, Suppl): 1–50.Keck PE, et al. (2004). Expert consensus guideline series: Treatment of bipolar disorder 2004. Postgraduate Medicine Special Report. Available online: http://www.psychguides.com/content/treatment-bipolar-disorder-2004.Keck PE, et al. (2004). Expert consensus guideline series: Treatment of bipolar disorder 2004. Postgraduate Medicine Special Report. Available online: http://www.psychguides.com/content/treatment-bipolar-disorder-2004.Keck PE, et al. (2004). Expert consensus guideline series: Treatment of bipolar disorder 2004. Postgraduate Medicine Special Report. Available online: http://www.psychguides.com/content/treatment-bipolar-disorder-2004.Sarris J, et al. (2012). Omega-3 for bipolar disorder: Meta-analyses of use in mania and bipolar depression. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 73(1): 81–86.Montgomery P, Richardson AJ (2009). Omega-3 fatty acids for bipolar disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
Adaptation Date: 2/24/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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