Bipolar Disorder Treatments

Written by Jaime Herndon | Published on August 13, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on August 13, 2014

Bipolar Disorder Treatments

Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder also known as manic-depressive illness. It’s not curable but it is treatable. It’s a chronic disorder requiring lifelong treatment and attention. Treatment will vary depending on your type of bipolar disorder. What works for one person may not work as well for another. Bipolar disorder symptoms can be managed effectively with an appropriate treatment plan. Communicate openly with your doctor to find the plan best suited for you.

Medications for Bipolar Disorder

The changing moods and symptoms of bipolar disorder may respond differently to different medications. It’s common to try several drugs before finding the ones that work best for you. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains that the most common types of medications used to treat bipolar disorder are mood stabilizers, atypical antipsychotics, and antidepressants.

Mood stabilizers are the first line of medical treatment. These drugs, which include lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid) and anticonvulsants, help stabilize moods. Anticonvulsants used to treat bipolar disorder can include:

  • divalproex sodium (Depakote)
  • lamotrigine (Lamictal)
  • topiramate (Topamax)
  • oxcarbazepine (Trileptal)

When taking some of these medicines, like lithium, you need to get regular blood tests. Regular blood tests help ensure effective and safe levels of the drug in your body. If the blood levels of these medications are not high enough, then you will not receive their full potential benefit.  Alternatively, the drugs can cause side effects to other organs if levels get too high. Side effects can include:

  • memory problems
  • dry mouth
  • increased urination
  • hair loss
  • weight gain
  • acne
  • thyroid problems

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 30 percent of individuals who try lithium as a treatment will not be able to tolerate it.

Atypical antipsychotics can be used with mood stabilizers. These drugs usually treat manic or mixed episodes. These drugs include olanzapine (Zyprexa), aripiprazole (Abilify), and risperidone (Risperdal). Weight gain is a common side effect of these drugs, along with sedation, skin rash, and blurred vision.

Standard antidepressants are also used to treat bipolar disorder. Examples include fluoxetine (Prozac), buproprion (Wellbutrin), and sertraline (Zoloft). These medications are usually given with mood stabilizing drugs because they can trigger manic episodes in some people. Side effects of antidepressants can include:

  • sexual problems
  • dry mouth
  • nausea
  • drowsiness

Talk with your doctor about any medications you are on for bipolar disorder. Know the signs of dangerous side effects, and let them know if any occur. There are risk factors for any medications. Your doctor will discuss the various risks and potential benefits with you to decide what medications are best for you.

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Psychotherapy and Bipolar Disorder

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is often used with drugs for bipolar disorder. A therapist can provide emotional support along with education about the disorder to you and your family. They may also help you avoid relapses and manage symptoms.

There are different kinds of therapy that may be helpful, including:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • family therapy
  • interpersonal therapy
  • psychoeducation

Sometimes a combination of therapies will be used. It’s important to find a therapist with whom you can develop a useful and effective relationship, which is not necessarily the same thing as finding a therapist you simply “like.” A trusting relationship encourages stability and helps manage the highs and lows of bipolar disorder.

Electroconvulsive Therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as shock therapy, is sometimes used for people with treatment-resistant bipolar disorder. When ECT is given, you take a muscle relaxant and are under short-term anesthesia. An electrical impulse is briefly administered. It’s a same-day procedure with a quick recovery. There can be serious side effects with ECT, like memory loss. Discuss the possible side effects with your doctor if you are considering this treatment.

Other Treatments for Bipolar Disorder

Non-medication supplements are also a possible treatment for bipolar. They are less common than the usual medications and psychotherapy. You might want to talk with your doctor about less traditional treatments if standard treatment doesn’t work for you.

Herbal supplements may be touted as an “all-natural” treatment for moods and symptoms of bipolar disorder. They should not be taken without first talking with your doctor. These natural supplements can interact with medications and other treatments and may have adverse effects.

Future Treatments for Bipolar Disorder

Researchers are studying different kinds of treatments that work faster and have less serious side effects. The specific causes of bipolar disorder are also being researched. Though chronic and lifelong, bipolar disorder is treatable and you can live a full life with the disorder. 

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