What is Bipolar Disorder?

Last Editorial Review: 10/31/2005

More than 2 million American adults have bipolar disorder, a type of mental illness marked by severe episodes of mania and depression, often with long periods of normality in between.

Could you have bipolar disorder?

  1. I sometimes have very rapid mood swings- lots of energy or feeling very happy, then feeling hopeless and helpless- followed by a period of feeling normal. Yes or No
  1. I sometimes feel much more confident, talk more quickly or am more outgoing than normal. Yes or No
  1. Friends and family say I seem reckless and out of control sometimes. Yes or No
  1. I worry my mood swings are so intense that they affect my work or my relationships. Yes or No
  1. I have had thoughts of killing myself. Yes or No


If you answered "yes" to these questions, you may have bipolar disorder. Bipolar sufferers may have severe highs and lows; then weeks, months or even years of near-normal life may pass before the next episode. Untreated, these episodes tend to increase in frequency. Some people with bipolar disorder become suicidal; the risk appears to be higher early in the course of the illness, so recognition and early treatment are important.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • Could I have bipolar disorder or some other condition with these symptoms?
  • What treatments are available for bipolar disorder?
  • What else can I do to minimize my symptoms?
  • Where can I find emotional support for my myself and my family?

Did You Know?

  • The key sign of bipolar disorder is extreme changes in mood (poles). Extreme mania is at one end, and severe depression at the other end.
  • Bipolar disorder is often mistaken for clinical depression when a depressive mood is the first sign of something wrong.
  • The cause of bipolar disorder is a mystery, but experts thing that an underlying problem with the balance of chemicals in the brain causes extreme mood swings.
  • Mood swings can last for hours, days, weeks and even months.
  • Hypomania is a type of bipolar disorder which causes mild or moderate episodes of mania.
  • Lithium is a mood-stabilizing drug, and is the oldest and most often prescribed treatment for bipolar disorder. It helps reduce the severity and frequency of mania and may also help relieve the depression symptoms of the disease as well.
  • Manic-depressive illness is another term for bipolar disorder.

Know Your Numbers

  • The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in every 100 U.S. adults has bipolar disorder.
  • When four or more episodes occur within a 12-month period, a person is said to have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder.
  • About 60% of people with bipolar disorder have drug or alcohol dependence, seasonal depression or certain anxiety disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder.

For more, please read the Bipolar Disorder and Depression articles, which describe the symptoms of mania and depression.

WebMD the Magazine - September/October 2005
© 2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


Another term that has been previously used for bipolar disorder is ___________________. See Answer

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors