Bipolar disorder is a serious mood disorder that affects more than 10 million Americans. Unlike unipolar depression, bipolar disorder is equally common in men and women. The onset of the condition typically occurs in the early 20s, but (although rare) the first symptoms can appear in early childhood or late in life.
Although some people may have only one episode, bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition that usually involves recurrent episodes. It's usually marked by episodes of mania or hypomania (low-grade highs) -- elevated mood and excessive energy and activity -- and depression, often with long periods of normalcy in between the mood swings.
The primary symptoms of bipolar disorder are periods of elevated or irritable mood accompanied by dramatic increases in energy, activity, and fast thinking. The illness has two (bi) strongly contrasting phases (polar): 1) bipolar mania or hypo-mania and 2) depression.
1) Bipolar mania or hypo-mania symptoms include:
Euphoria or irritability
Increased energy and activity
Excessive talk; racing thoughts
Unusual energy; less need for sleep
Doctors don't completely understand the causes of bipolar disorder, but they do understand the condition much better than they did 10 years ago. With that understanding has come targeted treatment. Although there is no cure, its symptoms can be managed effectively.
Treating Bipolar Mania
If you have bipolar disorder, you may be having an episode of mania if you suffer three or more of these symptoms most of the day -- nearly every day -- for one week or longer:
Talking very fast or talking more than usual; speech is pressured, loud, and often difficult to interpret
Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity -- unrealistic beliefs in one's ability, intelligence, and powers; may be delusional
Increased reckless behaviors (such as lavish spending sprees, impulsive sexual indiscretions, abuse of alcohol or drugs, bad business decisions, or reckless driving)
If you have four or more episodes of mania or depression in a year, it's known as "rapid cycling."
If you are suffering from mania, your doctor may initially treat you with an antipsychotic drug or benzodiazepine, a sedative, to quickly control hyperactivity, sleeplessness, hostility, and irritability.
Your doctor will also likely prescribe a mood stabilizer (antimanic drug). Mood stabilizers consist of a variety of drugs that help control mood swings, prevent recurrences, and may help to reduce the risk of suicide. They are usually taken for a long time, sometimes indefinitely, and include lithium and certain anticonvulsant drugs like carbamazepine (Tegretol), lamotrigine (Lamictal) or valproate (Depakote). Very close medical supervision and blood tests may be needed during this approach to rapidly control a manic episode.