What treatments are used for bipolar disorder?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Once bipolar disorder has been diagnosed, and such a diagnosis can occur much later in an individual’s life than might be expected, it is commonly treated with a two-track approach involving psychological or psychiatric therapy and the prescription of medications.   Bipolar disorder is generally characterized by dramatic mood swings between near-euphoric and seriously depressive states.  It can also involve mood swings that are considerably more subtle, but still exist to a degree that they adversely affect an individual’s quality of life.  Bipolar disorder can affect sleep patterns, appetite, sexual desire, and professional and personal outlook.  At its worse, it can lead to thoughts of and the actual conduct of suicide.  Short of suicidal tendencies, bipolar disorder can contribute to the development of serious  debilitating conditions including thyroid disease, migraine headaches, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and more. [See National Institutes of Mental Health www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml] Consequently, the quicker it is diagnosed and treatment is initiated, the better for the patient and those around him or her.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, a subdivision within the U.S. National Institutes of Health, there is no cure for bipolar disorder, and treatments are a lifelong endeavor.  As noted above, a combination of psychiatric or psychological treatment combined with the use of anti-depressive medications is typically used throughout the affected individual’s life, with modifications to the medicine regimen commonly required at irregular intervals.  The number of medications developed for the treatment of anxiety, depression and severe bipolar disorder provides for a large variety of options, with each prescription requiring two to four weeks before the full effect of each regimen can be ascertained.  In addition, in those cases where bipolar disorder has contributed to the development of illnesses like heart or thyroid disease or diabetes, treatments oriented toward those conditions are pursued on a parallel track with the treatment of the underlying psychological disorder.

One of the most difficult challenges of treating bipolar disorder is identifying the appropriate medication or combination of medications required to stabilize each individual patient.  Not every antidepressant or antipsychotic medication is appropriate for every individual, and finding the right balance of medications in the right dosages can take many months of trial and error.  Additionally, medications prescribed for depression and bipolar disorder usually have side effects that force the patient to find the right balance between taking enough of the medication to provide benefits while limiting the dosage so as to avoid or minimize potential side effects. 

Medications, as mentioned, constitute only half of the equation in the treatment of bipolar disorder.  Psychiatric or psychological treatment is also recommended in most cases, as it is through such sessions that the underlying causes of the disorder can sometimes be identified and addressed.  Moreover, to the extent there are identifiable “triggers” in an individual patient that bring on the symptoms of depression or bipolar disorder, sustained therapy can help train the patient to better respond to those triggers and consequently minimize the severity subsequent episodes.

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