Treatment is best guided by a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions (psychiatrist) who is skilled in treating bipolar and related disorders. You may have a treatment team that also includes a psychologist, social worker and psychiatric nurse.
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition. Treatment is directed at managing symptoms. Depending on your needs, treatment may include:
- Medications. Often, you'll need to start taking medications to balance your moods right away.
- Continued treatment. Bipolar disorder requires lifelong treatment with medications, even during periods when you feel better. People who skip maintenance treatment are at high risk of a relapse of symptoms or having minor mood changes turn into full-blown mania or depression.
- Day treatment programs. Your doctor may recommend a day treatment program. These programs provide the support and counseling you need while you get symptoms under control.
- Substance abuse treatment. If you have problems with alcohol or drugs, you'll also need substance abuse treatment. Otherwise, it can be very difficult to manage bipolar disorder.
- Hospitalization. Your doctor may recommend hospitalization if you're behaving dangerously, you feel suicidal or you become detached from reality (psychotic). Getting psychiatric treatment at a hospital can help keep you calm and safe and stabilize your mood, whether you're having a manic or major depressive episode.
The primary treatments for bipolar disorder include medications and psychological counseling (psychotherapy) to control symptoms, and also may include education and support groups.
A number of medications are used to treat bipolar disorder. The types and doses of medications prescribed are based on your particular symptoms.
Medications may include:
- Mood stabilizers. You'll typically need mood-stabilizing medication to control manic or hypomanic episodes. Examples of mood stabilizers include lithium (Lithobid), valproic acid (Depakene), divalproex sodium (Depakote), carbamazepine (Tegretol, Equetro, others) and lamotrigine (Lamictal).
- Antipsychotics. If symptoms of depression or mania persist in spite of treatment with other medications, adding an antipsychotic drug such as olanzapine (Zyprexa), risperidone (Risperdal), quetiapine (Seroquel), aripiprazole (Abilify), ziprasidone (Geodon), lurasidone (Latuda) or asenapine (Saphris) may help. Your doctor may prescribe some of these medications alone or along with a mood stabilizer.
- Antidepressants. Your doctor may add an antidepressant to help manage depression. Because an antidepressant can sometimes trigger a manic episode, it's usually prescribed along with a mood stabilizer or antipsychotic.
- Antidepressant-antipsychotic. The medication Symbyax combines the antidepressant fluoxetine and the antipsychotic olanzapine. It works as a depression treatment and a mood stabilizer.
- Anti-anxiety medications. Benzodiazepines may help with anxiety and improve sleep, but are usually used on a short-term basis.
Finding the right medication
Finding the right medication or medications for you will likely take some trial and error. If one doesn't work well for you, there are several others to try.
This process requires patience, as some medications need weeks to months to take full effect. Generally only one medication is changed at a time so that your doctor can identify which medications work to relieve your symptoms with the least bothersome side effects. Medications also may need to be adjusted as your symptoms change.
Mild side effects often improve as you find the right medications and doses that work for you, and your body adjusts to the medications. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional if you have bothersome side effects.
Don't make changes or stop taking your medications. If you stop your medication, you may experience withdrawal effects or your symptoms may worsen or return. You may become very depressed, feel suicidal, or go into a manic or hypomanic episode. If you think you need to make a change, call your doctor.
Medications and pregnancy
A number of medications for bipolar disorder can be associated with birth defects and can pass through breast milk to your baby. Certain medications, such as valproic acid and divalproex sodium, should not be used during pregnancy. Also, birth control medications may lose effectiveness when taken along with certain bipolar disorder medications.
Discuss treatment options with your doctor before you become pregnant, if possible. If you're taking medication to treat your bipolar disorder and think you may be pregnant, talk to your doctor right away.
Psychotherapy is a vital part of bipolar disorder treatment and can be provided in individual, family or group settings. Several types of therapy may be helpful. These include:
- Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT). IPSRT focuses on the stabilization of daily rhythms, such as sleeping, waking and mealtimes. A consistent routine allows for better mood management. People with bipolar disorder may benefit from establishing a daily routine for sleep, diet and exercise.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The focus is identifying unhealthy, negative beliefs and behaviors and replacing them with healthy, positive ones. CBT can help identify what triggers your bipolar episodes. You also learn effective strategies to manage stress and to cope with upsetting situations.
- Psychoeducation. Learning about bipolar disorder (psychoeducation) can help you and your loved ones understand the condition. Knowing what's going on can help you get the best support, identify issues, make a plan to prevent relapse and stick with treatment.
- Family-focused therapy. Family support and communication can help you stick with your treatment plan and help you and your loved ones recognize and manage warning signs of mood swings.
Other treatment options
Depending on your needs, other treatments may be added to your depression therapy.
During electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), electrical currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses. ECT may be an option for bipolar treatment if you don't get better with medications, can't take antidepressants for health reasons such as pregnancy or are at high risk of suicide.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is being investigated as an option for those who haven't responded to antidepressants.
Treatment in children and teenagers
Treatments for children and teenagers are generally decided on a case-by-case basis, depending on symptoms, medication side effects and other factors. Generally, treatment includes:
- Medications. Children and teens with bipolar disorder are often prescribed the same types of medications as those used in adults. There's less research on the safety and effectiveness of bipolar medications in children than in adults, so treatment decisions are often based on adult research.
- Psychotherapy. Initial and long-term therapy can help keep symptoms from returning. Psychotherapy can help children and teens manage their routines, develop coping skills, address learning difficulties, resolve social problems, and help strengthen family bonds and communication. And, if needed, it can help treat substance abuse problems common in older children and teens with bipolar disorder.
- Psychoeducation. Psychoeducation can include learning the symptoms of bipolar disorder and how they differ from behavior related to your child's developmental age, the situation and appropriate cultural behavior. Understanding about bipolar disorder can also help you support your child.
- Support. Working with teachers and school counselors and encouraging support from family and friends can help identify services and encourage success.
There isn't much research on alternative or complementary medicine — sometimes called integrative medicine — and bipolar disorder. Most of the studies are on major depression, so it isn't clear how these nontraditional approaches work for bipolar disorder.
If you choose to use alternative or complementary medicine in addition to your physician-recommended treatment, take some precautions first:
- Don't stop taking your prescribed medications or skip therapy sessions. Alternative or complementary medicine is not a substitute for regular medical care when it comes to treating bipolar disorder.
- Be honest with your doctors and mental health professionals. Tell them exactly which alternative or complementary treatments you use or would like to try.
- Be aware of potential dangers. Alternative and complementary products aren't regulated the way prescription drugs are. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe. Before using alternative or complementary medicine, talk to your doctor about the risks, including possible serious interactions with medications.