Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but it can be treated effectively over the long-term. Proper treatment helps many people with bipolar disorder—even those with the most severe forms of the illness—gain better control of their mood swings and related symptoms. But because it is a lifelong illness, long-term, continuous treatment is needed to control symptoms. However, even with proper treatment, mood changes can occur. In the NIMH-funded Systematic Treatment Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder (STEP-BD) study—the largest treatment study ever conducted for bipolar disorder—almost half of those who recovered still had lingering symptoms. Having another mental disorder in addition to bipolar disorder increased one’s chances for a relapse. See STEP-BD for more information.
Treatment is more effective if you work closely with a doctor and talk openly about your concerns and choices. An effective maintenance treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
Different types of medications can help control symptoms of bipolar disorder. Not everyone responds to medications in the same way. You may need to try several different medications before finding ones that work best for you.
Keeping a daily life chart that makes note of your daily mood symptoms, treatments, sleep patterns, and life events can help you and your doctor track and treat your illness most effectively. If your symptoms change or if side effects become intolerable, your doctor may switch or add medications.
The types of medications generally used to treat bipolar disorder include mood stabilizers, atypical antipsychotics, and antidepressants. For the most up-to-date information on medication use and their side effects, contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Mood stabilizers are usually the first choice to treat bipolar disorder. In general, people with bipolar disorder continue treatment with mood stabilizers for years. Lithium (also known as Eskalith or Lithobid) is an effective mood stabilizer. It was the first mood stabilizer approved by the FDA in the 1970’s for treating both manic and depressive episodes.
Anticonvulsants are also used as mood stabilizers. They were originally developed to treat seizures, but they also help control moods. Anticonvulsants used as mood stabilizers include:
- Valproic acid or divalproex sodium (Depakote), approved by the FDA in 1995 for treating mania. It is a popular alternative to lithium. However, young women taking valproic acid face special precautions.
- Lamotrigine (Lamictal), FDA-approved for maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder. It is often effective in treating depressive symptoms.
- Other anticonvulsant medications, including gabapentin (Neurontin), topiramate (Topamax), and oxcarbazepine (Trileptal).
Valproic acid, lamotrigine, and other anticonvulsant medications have an FDA warning. The warning states that their use may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. People taking anticonvulsant medications for bipolar or other illnesses should be monitored closely for new or worsening symptoms of depression, suicidal thoughts or behavior, or any unusual changes in mood or behavior. If you take any of these medications, do not make any changes to your dosage without talking to your doctor.
What are the side effects of mood stabilizers?
Lithium can cause side effects such as:
- Dry mouth
- Bloating or indigestion
- Unusual discomfort to cold temperatures
- Joint or muscle pain
- Brittle nails or hair.
When taking lithium, your doctor should check the levels of lithium in your blood regularly, and will monitor your kidney and thyroid function as well. Lithium treatment may cause low thyroid levels in some people. Low thyroid function, called hypothyroidism, has been associated with rapid cycling in some people with bipolar disorder, especially women.
Because too much or too little thyroid hormone can lead to mood and energy changes, it is important that your doctor check your thyroid levels carefully. You may need to take thyroid medication, in addition to medications for bipolar disorder, to keep thyroid levels balanced.
Common side effects of other mood stabilizing medications include:
- Mood swings
- Stuffed or runny nose, or other cold-like symptoms.
These medications may also be linked with rare but serious side effects. Talk with your doctor or a pharmacist to make sure you understand signs of serious side effects for the medications you’re taking. If extremely bothersome or unusual side effects occur, tell your doctor as soon as possible.
Should young women take valproic acid?
Valproic acid may increase levels of testosterone (a male hormone) in teenage girls. It could lead to a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in women who begin taking the medication before age 20. PCOS can cause obesity, excess body hair, an irregular menstrual cycle, and other serious symptoms. Most of these symptoms will improve after stopping treatment with valproic acid. Young girls and women taking valproic acid should be monitored carefully by a doctor.
Atypical antipsychotics are sometimes used to treat symptoms of bipolar disorder. Often, these medications are taken with other medications, such as antidepressants. Atypical antipsychotics include:
- Olanzapine (Zyprexa), which when given with an antidepressant medication, may help relieve symptoms of severe mania or psychosis. Olanzapine can be taken as a pill or a shot. The shot is often used for urgent treatment of agitation associated with a manic or mixed episode. Olanzapine can be used as maintenance treatment as well, even when psychotic symptoms are not currently present.
- Aripiprazole (Abilify), which is used to treat manic or mixed episodes. Aripiprazole is also used for maintenance treatment. Like olanzapine, aripiprazole can be taken as a pill or a shot. The shot is often used for urgent treatment of severe symptoms.
- Quetiapine (Seroquel), risperidone (Risperdal) and ziprasidone (Geodon) also are prescribed to relieve the symptoms of manic episodes.
What are the side effects of atypical antipsychotics?
If you are taking antipsychotics, you should not drive until you have adjusted to your medication. Side effects of many antipsychotics include:
- Dizziness when changing positions
- Blurred vision
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sensitivity to the sun
- Skin rashes
- Menstrual problems for women.
Atypical antipsychotic medications can cause major weight gain and changes in your metabolism. This may increase your risk of getting diabetes and high cholesterol. Your doctor should monitor your weight, glucose levels, and lipid levels regularly while you are taking these medications.
In rare cases, long-term use of atypical antipsychotic drugs may lead to a condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD). The condition causes uncontrollable muscle movements, frequently around the mouth. TD can range from mild to severe. Some people with TD recover partially or fully after they stop taking the drug, but others do not.
Antidepressants are sometimes used to treat symptoms of depression in bipolar disorder. Fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), and bupropion (Wellbutrin) are examples of antidepressants that may be prescribed to treat symptoms of bipolar depression.
However, taking only an antidepressant can increase your risk of switching to mania or hypomania, or of developing rapid-cycling symptoms. To prevent this switch, doctors usually require you to take a mood-stabilizing medication at the same time as an antidepressant.
What are the side effects of antidepressants?
Antidepressants can cause:
- Nausea (feeling sick to your stomach)
- Agitation (feeling jittery)
- Sexual problems, which can affect both men and women. These include reduced sex drive and problems having and enjoying sex.
Report any concerns about side effects to your doctor right away. You may need a change in the dose or a different medication. You should not stop taking a medication without talking to your doctor first. Suddenly stopping a medication may lead to “rebound” or worsening of bipolar disorder symptoms. Other uncomfortable or potentially dangerous withdrawal effects are also possible.
Some antidepressants are more likely to cause certain side effects than other types. Your doctor or pharmacist can answer questions about these medications. Any unusual reactions or side effects should be reported to a doctor immediately.
Should women who are pregnant or may become pregnant take medication for bipolar disorder?
Women with bipolar disorder who are pregnant or may become pregnant face special challenges. Mood stabilizing medications can harm a developing fetus or nursing infant. But stopping medications, either suddenly or gradually, greatly increases the risk that bipolar symptoms will recur during pregnancy.
Lithium is generally the preferred mood-stabilizing medication for pregnant women with bipolar disorder. However, lithium can lead to heart problems in the fetus. In addition, women need to know that most bipolar medications are passed on through breast milk. The FDA has also issued warnings about the potential risks associated with the use of antipsychotic medications during pregnancy. If you are pregnant or nursing, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of all available treatments.
FDA Warning on Antidepressants
Antidepressants are safe and popular, but some studies have suggested that they may have unintentional effects on some people, especially in adolescents and young adults. The FDA warning says that patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment. Possible side effects to look for are depression that gets worse, suicidal thinking or behavior, or any unusual changes in behavior such as trouble sleeping, agitation, or withdrawal from normal social situations. For the latest information, see the FDA website .
When done in combination with medication, psychotherapy can be an effective treatment for bipolar disorder. It can provide support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families. Some psychotherapy treatments used to treat bipolar disorder include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people with bipolar disorder learn to change harmful or negative thought patterns and behaviors.
- Family-focused therapy, which involves family members. It helps enhance family coping strategies, such as recognizing new episodes early and helping their loved one. This therapy also improves communication among family members, as well as problem-solving.
- Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy, which helps people with bipolar disorder improve their relationships with others and manage their daily routines. Regular daily routines and sleep schedules may help protect against manic episodes.
- Psychoeducation, which teaches people with bipolar disorder about the illness and its treatment. Psychoeducation can help you recognize signs of an impending mood swing so you can seek treatment early, before a full-blown episode occurs. Usually done in a group, psychoeducation may also be helpful for family members and caregivers.
In a STEP-BD study on psychotherapies, researchers compared people in two groups. The first group was treated with collaborative care (three sessions of psychoeducation over 6 weeks). The second group was treated with medication and intensive psychotherapy (30 sessions over 9 months of CBT, interpersonal and social rhythm therapy, or family-focused therapy). Researchers found that the second group had fewer relapses, lower hospitalization rates, and were better able to stick with their treatment plans. They were also more likely to get well faster and stay well longer. Overall, more than half of the study participants recovered over the course of 1 year.
A licensed psychologist, social worker, or counselor typically provides psychotherapy. He or she should work with your psychiatrist to track your progress. The number, frequency, and type of sessions should be based on your individual treatment needs. As with medication, following the doctor’s instructions for any psychotherapy will provide the greatest benefit.
Visit the NIMH website for more information on psychotherapy.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)—For cases in which medication and psychotherapy do not work, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be useful. ECT, formerly known as “shock therapy,” once had a bad reputation. But in recent years, it has greatly improved and can provide relief for people with severe bipolar disorder who have not been able to recover with other treatments.
Before ECT is administered, a patient takes a muscle relaxant and is put under brief anesthesia. He or she does not consciously feel the electrical impulse administered in ECT. On average, ECT treatments last from 30–90 seconds. People who have ECT usually recover after 5–15 minutes and are able to go home the same day.
Sometimes ECT is used for bipolar symptoms when other medical conditions, including pregnancy, make the use of medications too risky. ECT is a highly effective treatment for severely depressive, manic, or mixed episodes. But it is generally not used as a first-line treatment.
ECT may cause some short-term side effects, including confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. People with bipolar disorder should discuss possible benefits and risks of ECT with an experienced doctor.
Sleep Medications—People with bipolar disorder who have trouble sleeping usually sleep better after getting treatment for bipolar disorder. However, if sleeplessness does not improve, your doctor may suggest a change in medications. If the problems still continue, your doctor may prescribe sedatives or other sleep medications.
Herbal Supplements—In general, not much research has been conducted on herbal or natural supplements and how they may affect bipolar disorder. An herb called St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), often marketed as a natural antidepressant, may cause a switch to mania in some people with bipolar disorder. St. John’s wort can also make other medications less effective, including some antidepressant and anticonvulsant medications. Scientists are also researching omega-3 fatty acids (most commonly found in fish oil) to measure their usefulness for long-term treatment of bipolar disorder. Study results have been mixed.
Be sure to tell your doctor about all prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or supplements you are taking. Certain medications and supplements taken together may cause unwanted or dangerous effects.
What research is NIMH doing to improve treatments for bipolar disorder?
Scientists are working to identify new targets for improving current medications or developing new treatments for bipolar disorder. In addition, NIMH researchers have made promising advances toward finding fast-acting medication treatment. In a small study of people with bipolar disorder whose symptoms had not responded to prior treatments, a single dose of ketamine—an anesthetic medication—significantly reduced symptoms of depression in as little as 40 minutes. These effects lasted about a week on average.
Ketamine itself is unlikely to become widely available as a treatment because it can cause serious side effects at high doses, such as hallucinations. However, scientists are working to understand how the drug works on the brain in an effort to develop treatments with fewer side effects and that act similarly to ketamine. Such medications could also be used for longer term management of symptoms.
In addition, NIMH is working to better understand bipolar disorder and other mental disorders by spearheading the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) Project, which is an ongoing effort to map our current understanding of the brain circuitry that is involved in behavioral and cognitive functioning. By essentially breaking down mental disorders into their component pieces—RDoC aims to add to the knowledge we have gained from more traditional research approaches that focus solely on understanding mental disorders based on symptoms. The hope is that by changing the way we approach mental disorders, RDoC will help us open the door to new targets of preventive and treatment interventions.