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Bipolar Disorder Health Center

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Antipsychotic Medication for Bipolar Disorder

Antipsychotic medications are used as a short-term treatment for bipolar disorder to control psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, or mania symptoms. These symptoms may occur during acute mania or severe depression. Some also treat bipolar depression, and several have demonstrated long-term value in preventing future episodes of mania or depression.

In people with bipolar disorder, antipsychotics are also used "off label" as sedatives, for insomnia, for anxiety, and/or for agitation. Often, they are taken with a mood-stabilizing drug and can decrease symptoms of mania until mood stabilizers take full effect. Some antipsychotic drugs may also help lessen bipolar depression.

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Bipolar Disorder: Tips for Family and Friends

Ongoing treatment -- both psychotherapy and medication -- is essential to controlling the mood swings of bipolar disorder. How can family members help their loved one stick with treatment? "Learn as much as you can about the disease," says Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of An Unquiet Mind. "Read and read some more. Join support groups. You'll get emotional support and information you need." Also, learn to watch for early...

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Some antipsychotics seem to help stabilize moods on their own. As a result, they may be used alone as long-term treatment for people who don't tolerate or respond to lithium and anticonvulsants.

Antipsychotic drugs help regulate the functioning of brain circuits that control thinking, mood, and perception. It is not clear exactly how these drugs work, but they usually improve manic episodes quickly.

The newer antipsychotics usually act quickly and can help you avoid the reckless and impulsive behaviors associated with mania. More normal thinking often is restored within a few weeks.

Antipsychotics used to treat bipolar disorder include:

Side Effects of Antipsychotic Drugs

Certain antipsychotic drugs cause significant weight gain and high cholesterol levels, and they may increase the risk of diabetes. People considering an antipsychotic for bipolar disorder should be screened for their risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, according to a study published in Diabetes Care.

Common side effects of antipsychotic medications include:

Note: Clozaril is not used often, despite its effectiveness for bipolar disorder. The drug can cause a rare, potentially fatal side effect affecting the blood that requires weekly or biweekly blood test monitoring. Also, Geodon is linked to a rare but potentially fatal skin reaction.

Older antipsychotic drugs are also generally not used to treat bipolar disorder, although they are less well-established for treating depressive symptoms or preventing episodes during long-term use. However, they may be helpful if a person has troublesome side effects or doesn't respond to the newer drugs. Older antipsychotics include Thorazine (chlorpromazine), Haldol (haloperidol), and Trilafon (perphenazine). These drugs may cause a serious long-term side effect called tardive dyskinesia, a movement disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary movement like lip smacking, protruding the tongue, or grimacing. Newer atypical antipsychotics also have the potential to cause this side effect, but are thought to have a relatively lower risk than the older conventional antipsychotics.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on September 17, 2014

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