Conditions InDepth: Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a treatable illness that causes extreme swings in mood, thought, energy, and behavior. There are often periods of normal mood between episodes. This medical problem is not due to personal weakness or a character flaw.

The mood swings associated with bipolar disorder are different from the average ups and downs of everyday life and are often associated with psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusions, or disorders of thought. They can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. When treated appropriately, people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.

Bipolar disorder affects an estimated 2.6% of American adults (18 and older). The condition typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. However, some people have their first symptoms during childhood, and some develop symptoms late in life. Bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person's life.

The cause is not known. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. Specific genes may play a role, but it is not caused by one single gene. Additional factors, possibly stressors at home, work, or school, are believed to be involved in its onset.

People with bipolar disorder are at increased risk for suicide, substance abuse, and dangerous behaviors such as reckless driving and sexual promiscuity. Anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder , may be common in people with bipolar disorder.

What are the risk factors for bipolar disorder?
What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?
What are the treatments for bipolar disorder?
Are there screening tests for bipolar disorder?
How can I reduce my risk of bipolar disorder?
What questions should I ask my doctor?
What is it like to live with bipolar disorder?
Where can I get more information about bipolar disorder?


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . 4th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.; 2000.

Bipolar disorder. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: . Updated April 2008. Accessed on June 15, 2008.

Merikangas KR, Akiskal HS, Angst J, et at. Lifetime and 12-month prevalence of bipolar spectrum disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64:543-552.

The numbers count: mental disorders in America. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: Updated June 2008. Accessed September 9, 2008.

Last reviewed June 2008 by Janet H. Greenhut, MD, MPH

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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