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Bipolar Disorder

Overview and Facts

Bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive disorder, is a mental illness that can be quite debilitating. It can damage or destroy personal relationships or careers and may even cause suicidal tendencies. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bipolar disorder affects more than 10 million Americans. Bipolar disorder does not differentiate between men and women, affecting both groups equally. The disorder develops in early adulthood, with over 50 % of cases beginning earlier than age 25. Since the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder present differently in each individual, it can be difficult to diagnose.

Signs and Symptoms

The main symptom of bipolar disorder is a dramatic change in moods. These mood swings can occur multiple times in a day, called rapid cycling bipolar disorder, or may occur only a few times per year. It is common for normal moods to exist between the mood swings. Manic phases are characterized by risk taking behavior, elatedness, thoughts flying through the mind, talking at a rapid pace, reduced sleep without feeling tired, a seeming endless amount of energy, or flamboyant behavior and plans. Bipolar disorder signs of depression include suicidal thoughts, feelings of hopelessness, extreme fatigue, problems with concentration, irritability, restlessness, appetite changes, prolonged sleeping, or a decrease in the enjoyment of normal activities.

Causes and Diagnosis

The causes of bipolar disorder are not known. Mental health professionals feel that many factors are present that cause a chemical imbalance that affect parts of the brain. Some of these factors are an unevenness in the balance of neurotransmitters, stress, and a traumatic occurrence such as abuse or a significant loss. It is also common for multiple family members to suffer from the disorder, suggesting a potential genetic factor to the illness. There are factors that may trigger a manic or depressive state. Some of these include the death of someone close to the person, alcohol abuse, divorce or prolonged periods of stress.
Unless bipolar disorder signs and symptoms are severe, doctors will begin the diagnostic process with routine questioning, a physical exam and lab tests. These will not lead directly to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but will rule out other medical conditions. When a medical cause for the symptoms is not present, the doctor will probably make a mental health referral. The mental health professional will delve deeper into family history and will most likely interview family members of the patient. They will also attempt to rule out unipolar depression, which is a major depressive disorder without manic phases.

Tests and Treatments

A psychological or psychiatric assessment will most likely involve the use of questionnaires, behavioral checklists and detailed descriptions of the manic and depressive states of the patient. It is important to be honest and to accurately describe behaviors and emotions present during mania or depression. The doctor will then apply all of the information that has been gathered to very specific criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Based on the number and severity of manic, depressive and mixed episodes a diagnosis of bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder or cyclothymic disorder may be made.
Once bipolar disorder has been diagnosed, there are a number of treatment options that may be suggested. Because there is not a cure, treatment is geared towards reducing the severity of the symptoms and helping the patient control and minimize the effects of their mood swings. Medication is a vital component of most treatment protocols for bipolar disorder. Doctors will closely monitor patients to ensure that the correct medication and dosage has been prescribed. Psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy or psycho educational therapy is often used in conjunction with medications.

Helpful Tips and Home Remedies

Many of the medications used to treat bipolar disorder can cause birth defects. Men and women should practice effective birth control methods. Their doctor should be consulted, since many birth control medications can become less effective when interacting with medications used to treat bipolar disorder. Acupuncture, massage therapy and yoga may help alleviate some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Other home remedies include increasing intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, amino acid supplements and taking herbal supplements such as St. John’s wort or those used in traditional Chinese medical treatments. Patients should discuss these treatments with their doctor before using them.

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