Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental health illness characterized by extreme emotional states. People with bipolar disorder swing from the lows of depression to the highs of mania. Without effective treatment, bipolar disorder can be a debilitating condition associated with significant disability and reduced quality of life.
Long-term medication use is generally recommended for bipolar disorder. Even if a person with bipolar disorder is experiencing a stable period of mood, it is still important to continue to take medication to prevent or reduce the effects of another mood swing to a manic or depressed state.
Treating bipolar disorder can be a difficult process. It is important to find the medication (or medication combination) that works best for the child or adult with bipolar disorder. Medications are also often combined with psychotherapy.
It is normal for people with bipolar disorder to take a combination of medications to treat the condition. According to one study of individuals with bipolar disorder:
Several types of drugs are used to treat bipolar disorder. These drugs include mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotics. Each of these drugs is used to control a different aspect of bipolar disorder.
Mood stabilizers are a first-line treatment against bipolar disorder. They are used, as the name suggests, to stabilize mood and reduce mood swings. Most of these drugs (except lithium) are used at different dosages as anticonvulsants or antiepileptic drugs to control seizures. As an anticonsulvant stops seizure-related brain activity, these drugs keep the brain from becoming too overactive when used as mood stabilizers.
Some examples of mood stabilizers commonly used in the treatment of bipolar disorder include:
Side effects are one of the most common reasons people with bipolar disorder stop taking their medications. Potential side effects of mood stabilizers vary greatly from person to person. Some people do not notice side effects.
Side effects of mood stabilizers can include:
Although primarily used for their mood stabilizing properties, some of these drugs may also be prescribed to help with symptoms of depression (Lamictal) or mania (lithium).
Although mood stabilizers can help with the symptoms of depression, sometimes additional medications are needed to control depressive episodes.
Antidepressants prescribed to treat bipolar disorder are typically of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class, particularly for bipolar disorder type 2. Serotonin is a brain chemical that plays an important role in mood. An SSRI is a drug that keeps serotonin molecules active and increases overall serotonin signaling. Increasing serotonin can improve emotion regulation.
Some examples of common SSRIs include:
While antidepressants are helpful for some people, there is also some controversy among experts and clinicians about how efficient they really are. Some researchers theorize the medications may cause more mood swings or manic episodes. Antidepressant use also needs to be monitored closely in younger people because of the medication’s potential to cause suicidal behaviors.
Potential side effects of antidepressant use may include:
Antipsychotics are another class of medications prescribed to treat bipolar disorder. These drugs are primarily used to treat the manic side of bipolar disorder. This is particularly important in cases of bipolar disorder type 1, where psychosis may occur.
In recent years, second generation “atypical” antipsychotics are the preferred category of antipsychotics to use. Older “typical” antipsychotics such as Haldol (haloperidol) have riskier side effects.
Examples of atypical antipsychotics used for bipolar manic symptoms are:
Atypical antipsychotic drugs can be quite effective against fighting symptoms of bipolar disorder. Each person responds differently to different drugs, and some drugs work better for specific groups. For instance, Latuda is an atypical antipsychotic that is approved to treat bipolar disorder in children and adolescents, as well as adults.
There are also side effects associated with antipsychotic use. Common side effects of antipsychotics include:
For some individuals, different pharmaceutical approaches that don’t fall into the categories mentioned above may be necessary. Medications that fall outside these categories may be used to treat symptoms of bipolar disorder other than depression and mania. For example, Lunesta (eszopiclone) is a nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic sedative used to treat insomnia, but it is also used sometimes in bipolar disorder to treat sleep-related symptoms.
Although medications are an important component of bipolar disorder treatment, so are nonpharmaceutical methods, such as psychotherapy or counseling. One form of psychotherapy scientifically shown to be a useful adjunctive treatment for bipolar disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT approaches, which emphasize skills such as mindfulness and problem-solving, are particularly useful for adolescents with bipolar disorder.
It can be tempting for a person, when they find themselves in a state of stability, to discontinue medication use. However, bipolar disorder is a chronic disease, and long-term medication maintenance is necessary. Bipolar disorder doesn’t go away, and its symptoms do not tend to get better. Symptoms can be managed using prescription medication and psychotherapeutic strategies.
Discontinuing a treatment without the supervision of a doctor can have devastating consequences. However, it is important to be aware of unwanted side effects of medication, and discuss these with your doctor. You and your doctor can work together to find the prescriptions that work best for you.
MyDepressionTeam is the social network for people with depression and their loved ones. On MyDepressionTeam, more than 13,000 members diagnosed with bipolar disorder come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with depression and bipolar disorder.
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