Bipolar Disorder (cont.)
How is bipolar disorder treated?
To date, there is no cure for bipolar disorder. But proper treatment helps
most people with bipolar disorder gain better control of their mood swings and
related symptoms. This is also true for people with the most severe forms
of the illness.
Because bipolar disorder is a lifelong and recurrent illness, people with the
disorder need long-term treatment to maintain control of bipolar symptoms. An
effective maintenance treatment plan includes medication and psychotherapy for
preventing relapse and reducing symptom severity.
Bipolar disorder can be diagnosed and medications prescribed by
people with an M.D. (doctor of medicine). Usually, bipolar medications are
prescribed by a psychiatrist. In some states, clinical psychologists,
psychiatric nurse practitioners, and advanced psychiatric nurse specialists can
also prescribe medications. Check with your state's licensing agency to find out
Not everyone responds to medications in the same way. Several different
medications may need to be tried before the best course of treatment is found.
Keeping a chart of daily mood symptoms, treatments, sleep patterns, and life
events can help the doctor track and treat the illness most effectively.
Sometimes this is called a daily life chart. If a person's symptoms change or if
side effects become serious, the doctor may switch or add medications.
Some of the types of medications generally used to treat bipolar disorder are
listed on the next page. Information on medications can change. For the most up
to date information on use and side effects contact the U.S. Food and Drug
1. Mood stabilizing medications are usually the first choice to treat bipolar
disorder. In general, people with bipolar disorder continue treatment with mood
stabilizers for years. Except for lithium, many of these medications are
anticonvulsants. Anticonvulsant medications are usually used to treat seizures,
but they also help control moods. These medications are commonly used as mood
stabilizers in bipolar disorder:
- Lithium (sometimes known as Eskalith or
Lithobid) was the first mood-stabilizing medication approved by the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 1970s for treatment of mania. It is often
very effective in controlling symptoms of mania and preventing the recurrence of
manic and depressive episodes.
- Valproic acid or divalproex sodium (Depakote),
approved by the FDA in 1995 for treating mania, is a popular alternative to
lithium for bipolar disorder. It is generally as effective as lithium for
treating bipolar disorder.
- More recently, the anticonvulsant lamotrigine
(Lamictal) received FDA approval for maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder.
- Other anticonvulsant medications, including gabapentin (Neurontin), topiramate
(Topamax), and oxcarbazepine (Trileptal) are sometimes prescribed. No large
studies have shown that these medications are more effective than mood
Valproic acid, lamotrigine, and other anticonvulsant medications
have an FDA warning. The warning states that their use may increase the risk of
suicidal thoughts and behaviors. People taking anticonvulsant medications for
bipolar or other illnesses should be closely monitored for new or worsening
symptoms of depression, suicidal thoughts or behavior, or any unusual changes in
mood or behavior. People taking these medications should not make any changes
without talking to their health care professional.
Lithium and Thyroid Function
People with bipolar disorder often have thyroid gland problems. Lithium
treatment may also cause low thyroid levels in some people. Low thyroid
function, called hypothyroidism, has been associated with rapid cycling in some
people with bipolar disorder, especially women.
Because too much or too little thyroid hormone can lead to mood and energy
changes, it is important to have a doctor check thyroid levels carefully. A
person with bipolar disorder may need to take thyroid medication, in addition to
medications for bipolar disorder, to keep thyroid levels balanced.
|Should young women take valproic acid?
Valproic acid may increase levels of testosterone (a male hormone) in teenage
girls and lead to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in women who begin taking the
medication before age 20. PCOS causes a woman's eggs to develop into cysts, or
fluid filled sacs that collect in the ovaries instead of being released by
monthly periods. This condition can cause obesity, excess body hair, disruptions
in the menstrual cycle, and other serious symptoms. Most of these symptoms will
improve after stopping treatment with valproic acid. Young girls
and women taking valproic acid should be monitored carefully by a doctor.
2. Atypical antipsychotic medications are sometimes used to treat symptoms of
bipolar disorder. Often, these medications are taken with other medications.
Atypical antipsychotic medications are called "atypical" to set them apart from
earlier medications, which are called "conventional" or "first-generation"
3. Antidepressant medications are sometimes used to treat symptoms of
depression in bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder who take
antidepressants often take a mood stabilizer too. Doctors usually require
this because taking only an antidepressant can increase a person's risk of
switching to mania or hypomania, or of developing rapid cycling symptoms. To
prevent this switch, doctors who prescribe antidepressants for treating bipolar
disorder also usually require the person to take a mood-stabilizing medication
at the same time.
- Olanzapine (Zyprexa), when given with an antidepressant medication, may help
relieve symptoms of severe mania or psychosis. Olanzapine
is also available in an injectable form, which quickly treats agitation
associated with a manic or mixed episode. Olanzapine can be used for maintenance
treatment of bipolar disorder as well, even when a person does not have
psychotic symptoms. However, some studies show that people taking olanzapine may
gain weight and have other side effects that can increase their risk for
diabetes and heart disease. These side effects are more likely in people taking
olanzapine when compared with people prescribed other atypical antipsychotics.
- Aripiprazole (Abilify), like olanzapine, is approved for treatment of a manic or
mixed episode. Aripiprazole is also used for maintenance treatment after a
severe or sudden episode. As with olanzapine, aripiprazole also can be injected
for urgent treatment of symptoms of manic or mixed episodes of bipolar disorder.
- Quetiapine (Seroquel) relieves the symptoms of severe and sudden manic episodes.
In that way, quetiapine is like almost all antipsychotics. In 2006, it became
the first atypical antipsychotic to also receive FDA approval for the treatment
of bipolar depressive episodes.
- Risperidone (Risperdal) and ziprasidone (Geodon)
are other atypical antipsychotics that may also be prescribed for controlling
manic or mixed episodes.
Recently, a large-scale, NIMH-funded study showed that for many people,
adding an antidepressant to a mood stabilizer is no more effective in treating
the depression than using only a mood stabilizer.
Some medications are better at treating one type
of bipolar symptoms than another. For example, lamotrigine (Lamictal) seems to
be helpful in controlling depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder.
What are the side effects of these medications?
Before starting a new
medication, people with bipolar disorder should talk to their doctor about the
possible risks and benefits.
The psychiatrist prescribing the medication or pharmacist can also answer
questions about side effects. Over the last decade, treatments have improved,
and some medications now have fewer or more tolerable side effects than earlier
treatments. However, everyone responds differently to medications. In some
cases, side effects may not appear until a person has taken a medication for
If the person with bipolar disorder develops any severe side effects from a
medication, he or she should talk to the doctor who prescribed it as soon as
possible. The doctor may change the dose or prescribe a different medication.
People being treated for bipolar disorder should not stop taking a medication
without talking to a doctor first. Suddenly stopping a medication may lead to
"rebound," or worsening of bipolar disorder symptoms. Other uncomfortable or
potentially dangerous withdrawal effects are also possible.
|FDA Warning on Antidepressants
Antidepressants are safe and popular, but some studies have suggested that
they may have unintentional effects on some people, especially in adolescents
and young adults. The FDA warning says that patients of all ages taking
antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks
of treatment. Possible side effects to look for are depression that gets worse,
suicidal thinking or behavior, or any unusual changes in behavior such as
trouble sleeping, agitation, or withdrawal from normal social situations.
Families and caregivers should report any changes to the doctor. For the latest
information visit the FDA website.
The following sections describe some common side effects of the different
types of medications used to treat bipolar disorder.
1. Mood Stabilizers
In some cases, lithium can cause side effects such as:
causes side effects not listed here. If extremely bothersome or unusual side
effects occur, tell your doctor as soon as possible.
If a person with bipolar disorder is being treated with lithium, it is
important to make regular visits to the treating doctor. The doctor needs to
check the levels of lithium in the person's blood, as well as kidney and thyroid
|These medications may also be linked with rare but serious side effects. Talk
with the treating doctor or a pharmacist to make sure you understand signs of
serious side effects for the medications you're taking.
Common side effects of other mood stabilizing medications include:
Some people have side effects when they start taking atypical antipsychotics.
Most side effects go away after a few days and often can be managed
successfully. People who are taking antipsychotics should not drive until they
adjust to their new medication. Side effects of many antipsychotics include:
- Dizziness when changing positions
- Blurred vision
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sensitivity to the sun
- Skin rashes
- Menstrual problems for women.
Atypical antipsychotic medications can cause major weight gain and changes in
a person's metabolism. This may increase a person's risk of getting diabetes and
high cholesterol. A person's weight, glucose levels, and lipid levels should be
monitored regularly by a doctor while taking these medications.
In rare cases, long-term use of atypical antipsychotic drugs may lead to a
condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD). The condition causes muscle movements
that commonly occur around the mouth. A person with TD cannot control these
moments. TD can range from mild to severe, and it cannot always be cured. Some
people with TD recover partially or fully after they stop taking the drug.
The antidepressants most commonly prescribed for treating symptoms of bipolar
disorder can also cause mild side effects that usually do not last long. These
- Headache, which usually goes away within a few days.
- Nausea (feeling sick to
your stomach), which usually goes away within a few days.
- Sleep problems, such
as sleeplessness or drowsiness. This may happen during the first few weeks but
then go away. To help lessen these effects, sometimes the medication dose can be
reduced, or the time of day it is taken can be changed.
- Agitation (feeling
- Sexual problems, which can affect both men and women. These include
reduced sex drive and problems having and enjoying sex.
Some antidepressants are
more likely to cause certain side effects than other types. Your doctor or
pharmacist can answer questions about these medications. Any unusual reactions
or side effects should be reported to a doctor immediately.
|Should women who are pregnant or may become pregnant take medication for
Women with bipolar disorder who are pregnant or may become pregnant face
special challenges. The mood stabilizing medications in use today can harm a
developing fetus or nursing infant. But stopping medications, either suddenly or
gradually, greatly increases the risk that bipolar symptoms will recur during
Scientists are not sure yet, but lithium is likely the preferred
mood-stabilizing medication for pregnant women with bipolar disorder. However,
lithium can lead to heart problems in the fetus. Women need to know that most
bipolar medications are passed on through breast milk. Pregnant
women and nursing mothers should talk to their doctors about the benefits and
risks of all available treatments.
In addition to medication, psychotherapy, or "talk" therapy,
can be an effective treatment for bipolar disorder. It can provide support,
education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families. Some
psychotherapy treatments used to treat bipolar disorder include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people with bipolar disorder learn
to change harmful or negative thought patterns and behaviors.
therapy includes family members. It helps enhance family coping strategies, such
as recognizing new episodes early and helping their loved one. This therapy also
improves communication and problem-solving.
- Interpersonal and social rhythm
therapy helps people with bipolar disorder improve their relationships with
others and manage their daily routines. Regular daily routines and sleep
schedules may help protect against manic episodes.
- Psychoeducation teaches
people with bipolar disorder about the illness and its treatment. This treatment
helps people recognize signs of relapse so they can seek treatment early, before
a full-blown episode occurs. Usually done in a group, psychoeducation may also
be helpful for family members and caregivers.
A licensed psychologist, social
worker, or counselor typically provides these therapies. This mental health
professional often works with the psychiatrist to track progress. The number,
frequency, and type of sessions should be based on the treatment needs of each
person. As with medication, following the doctor's instructions for any
psychotherapy will provide the greatest benefit.
Recently, NIMH funded a clinical trial called the Systematic Treatment
Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder (STEP-BD). This was the largest
treatment study ever conducted for bipolar disorder. In a study on
psychotherapies, STEP-BD researchers compared people in two groups. The first
group was treated with collaborative care (three sessions of psychoeducation
over six weeks). The second group was treated with medication and intensive
psychotherapy (30 sessions over nine months of CBT, interpersonal and social
rhythm therapy, or family-focused therapy). Researchers found that the second
group had fewer relapses, lower hospitalization rates, and were better able to
stick with their treatment plans. They were also more likely to get well
faster and stay well longer.
NIMH is supporting more research on which combinations of psychotherapy and
medication work best. The goal is to help people with bipolar disorder live
symptom-free for longer periods and to recover from episodes more quickly.
Researchers also hope to determine whether psychotherapy helps delay the start
of bipolar disorder in children at high risk for the illness.
- Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) -- For cases in which
medication and/or psychotherapy does not work, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)
may be useful. ECT, formerly known as "shock therapy," once had a bad
reputation. But in recent years, it has greatly improved and can provide relief
for people with severe bipolar disorder who have not been able to feel better
with other treatments.
Before ECT is administered, a patient takes a muscle
relaxant and is put under brief anesthesia. He or she does not consciously feel
the electrical impulse administered in ECT. On average, ECT treatments last from
30-90 seconds. People who have ECT usually recover after 5-15 minutes and are
able to go home the same day.
Sometimes ECT is used for bipolar symptoms when other medical conditions,
including pregnancy, make the use of medications too risky. ECT is a highly
effective treatment for severely depressive, manic, or mixed episodes, but is
generally not a first-line treatment.
ECT may cause some short-term side effects, including confusion,
disorientation, and memory loss. But these side effects typically clear soon
after treatment. People with bipolar disorder should discuss possible benefits
and risks of ECT with an experienced doctor.
- Sleep Medications -- People with bipolar disorder who have trouble sleeping
usually sleep better after getting treatment for bipolar disorder. However, if
sleeplessness does not improve, the doctor may suggest a change in medications.
If the problems still continue, the doctor may prescribe sedatives or other
sleep medications. People with bipolar disorder should tell their doctor about
all prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or supplements they are
taking. Certain medications and supplements taken together may cause unwanted or
In general, there is not much research about herbal or natural supplements.
Little is known about their effects on bipolar disorder. An herb called St.
John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), often marketed as a natural antidepressant,
may cause a switch to mania in some people with bipolar disorder. St. John's
wort can also make other medications less effective, including some
antidepressant and anticonvulsant medications. Scientists are also researching
omega-3 fatty acids (most commonly found in fish oil) to measure their
usefulness for long-term treatment of bipolar disorder. Study results have been
mixed. It is important to talk with a doctor before taking any herbal or
natural supplements because of the serious risk of interactions with other