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Bipolar Disorder - Topic Overview

This topic discusses bipolar disorder in adults. If you are concerned that your child or teen may have bipolar disorder, see the topic Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens.

Bipolar disorder is an illness that causes extreme mood changes from manic episodes of very high energy to the extreme lows of depression. It is also called manic-depressive disorder.

This illness can cause behavior so extreme that you cannot function at work, in family or social situations, or in relationships with others. Some people with bipolar disorder become suicidal.

Over 3 million Americans—about 1% of the population, or 1 out of 100 people—have bipolar disorder, and rates are similar in other countries.1

It's important to know that you're not alone. Talking with others who suffer from bipolar disorder may help you learn that there is hope for a better life. And treatment can help you get back in control.

The cause of bipolar disorder isn't completely understood. It tends to run in families. It may also be affected by your living environment or family situation. One possible cause is an imbalance of chemicals in the brain.

The symptoms depend on your mood swings, or "highs" and "lows." During a manic high, you may feel:

  • Very happy, energetic, or on edge.
  • Like you need very little sleep.
  • Overly self-confident.

Some people spend a lot of money or get involved in dangerous activities when they are manic. After a manic episode, you may return to normal. Or your mood may swing in the opposite direction to feelings of sadness, depression, and hopelessness. During a depressive episode, or low, you may have:

  • Trouble thinking and making decisions.
  • Memory problems.
  • Less interest in things you have enjoyed in the past.
  • Thoughts about killing yourself.

The mood swings of bipolar disorder can be mild or extreme. They may come on slowly over several days or weeks or suddenly over a few minutes or hours. These mood swings may last for a few hours or for several months.

Bipolar disorder is hard to diagnose. First, your doctor or therapist will ask detailed questions about what kind of symptoms you have and how long they last. Your urine and blood may be tested to rule out other problems that could be causing your symptoms.

There are two types of bipolar disorder: I and II.

To be diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, you must have had:

  • A manic episode lasting at least a week (or less, if you had to be hospitalized).
  • During that time, three or more symptoms of mania, such as needing less sleep or feeling as if your thoughts are racing.

For bipolar II disorder, your doctor will look for the same symptoms, but the manic high may be less severe and shorter.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 03, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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