Formerly referred to as manic depression, bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by sometimes drastic mood swings between depression and mania. Sometimes the swings can be rather quick or rapid cycling, but usually they happen more gradually. An estimated 6 million people suffer from some form of bipolar disorder in the US. It can happen to both men and women equally with most cases starting in people between the ages of 15 to 25. Those with a family history of bipolar disorder are at a higher risk of developing the illness.
There are different forms of the disorder from mild to extreme with both the depression phase and the manic phase carrying their own set of distinct symptoms. Understanding the illness can help sufferers and their families cope with and treat the symptoms effectively to live more normal lives. There is no known cure for bipolar disorder so treatment and medications are likely to be a lifelong endeavour.
Different Types of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is classified into different types based on the symptoms experienced by the patient as well as their intensity and duration.
Cyclothymia – this is a milder form of bipolar disorder where the mood swings involved are less drastic. The depression is not that severe and the mania is not as elevated. Swings in mood switch from mild depression to low levels of mania. It is not uncommon for sufferers of cyclothymia to be misdiagnosed as having a general depressive disorder since their symptoms aren’t as stark as the other types of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar Disorder Type II – A person suffering from bipolar II disorder has mood swings from low to high and back again only the manic phase does not reach full blown mania. The highs do not reach the extreme level of someone suffering from bipolar I disorder. To be diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, the patient must have had at least one hypomanic episode in their lifetime. As with cyclothymia it is easy for bipolar II disorder sufferers to be misdiagnosed as having a general form of clinical depression.
The changes in mood can last for days, weeks or even longer. Periods of showing none of the symptoms of the disorder last for similar lengths as well.
Bipolar Disorder Type I – Similar to type II except someone suffering from bipolar I disorder has had at least one full blown manic episode in their life as well as episodes of major depression. Mania levels reach the extreme and can last from a few days up to a few years. Depressive episodes also present themselves and share the same symptoms as general clinical depression.
Bipolar Disorder Symptoms
Since the disorder consists of two different phases, there are two sets of symptoms for both the depression phase as well as the manic phase. Some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder may include the following:
Depression – the depressive phase may include some of the normal signs of depression.
- deep sadness that may be coupled with anxiety or distemper
- loss of interest in activities
- sleep disruption, loss of sleep or sleeping too much
- change in appetite resulting in sudden weight loss or weigh gain
- inability to concentrate or think clearly
- withdrawal from family and friends, isolation
- feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and guilt
- suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide
Suicide is a serious risk for sufferers of bipolar disorder. Any thoughts or words pertaining to suicide should not be ignored and immediate professional help should be sought after.
Mania – the following manic symptoms can occur for a few days, weeks or even months if left untreated.
- Excessive energy (hypoactivity)
- overly happy, excited or hopeful
- inflated sense of self
- trouble sleeping or seemingly having no need for sleep
- busy mind, fast thoughts
- excessive talking or fast talking
- easily agitated
- little to no control of temper
- Reckless or risky behavior, binging, promiscuous sex
- poor judgment
Manic symptoms are similar for both type I and type II with only a difference in the level of intensity of the symptoms. Bipolar I disorder has the highest most extreme levels of mania, where as bipolar II disorder patients show milder levels.
There is currently no cure for this disorder and those afflicted with bipolar disorder will have to deal with it for their entire lives. If a patient is in the process of a severe manic or depressive episode they may be hospitalized until their mood stabilizes before treatment can begin.The main goals of treatment are to stabilize patients’ moods, trying to avoid the mood swings associated with the disorder, or at least making the swings less frequent or less extreme, as well as enabling the patient to function better in their every day lives.
Several medications can be used to treat the different aspects of bipolar disorder. Mood stabilizers are often prescribed first. These may include medications such as Lithium, Valproate, Lamotrigine, Depakote, Topiramate, Neurontin and Carbamazepine to name a few. Most of this are anti-seizure that also work to stabilize moods. Some antipsychotic medications approved for the treatment of bipolar disorder to treat psychotic symptoms sometimes associated with a manic or depressive episode also work to stabilize moods.
Lithium is one of the most popular medications to control the symptoms of mania and it has quite a long history of use and track record dating back to the 1970’s. Patients may be prescribed a single medication or a combination of mood stabilizers to control manic symptoms.
Anti-depressants may also be used in conjunction with mood stabilizers to treat bipolar depression symptoms. Because anti-depressants may promote a manic episode in bipolar disorder patients, they are almost always used in combination with mood stabilizers. Some of the medications used to fight depression may include Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac and Wellbutrin for example.
Side effects are always a risk with any medication. Patients should give a complete medical history to their doctors before starting on any type of medication regimen. During the regimen the patient should take note of any unusual symptoms or side effect and inform their treating physician.
Along with taking medication, psychotherapy (talk therapy) may also be prescribed. This can help learn how to deal with the disorder and provide help and support through any rough patches they may encounter.
Since there is no cure for bipolar disorder, sufferers will likely have to have some form of treatment for their entire lives. It is important for patients to keep taking their medications even if they are feeling fine.
If you suspect that you or a loved one might be suffering from bipolar disorder it is important to seek out professional help. While it cannot be cured, there are effective treatments that can enable patients to lead productive lives.