Treatment of bipolar disorder is usually by means of medication. A combination of mood stabilizing agents with antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants is used to regulate manic and depressive episodes.
Mood stabilizing agents such as lithium, carbamazepine, and valproate are prescribed to regulate the manic highs and lows of bipolar disorder:
Lithium (Cibalith-S, Eskalith, Lithane, Lithobid, Lithonate, Lithotabs) is one of the oldest and most frequently prescribed drugs available for the treatment of bipolar mania and depression. Because the drug takes four to ten days to reach a therapeutic level in the bloodstream, it is sometimes prescribed in conjunction with neuroleptics and/or benzodiazepines to provide more immediate relief of a manic episode. Lithium has also been shown to be effective in regulating bipolar depression, but is not recommended for mixed mania. Lithium may not be an effective long-term treatment option for rapid cyclers, who typically develop a tolerance for it, or may not respond to it. Possible side effects of the drug include weight gain, thirst, nausea, and hand tremors. Prolonged lithium use may also cause hyperthyroidism (a disease of the thryoid that is marked by heart palpitations, nervousness, the presence of goiter, sweating, and a wide array of other symptoms.)
Carbamazepine (Tegretol, Atretol) is an anticonvulsant drug usually prescribed in conjunction with other mood stabilizing agents. The drug is often used to treat bipolar patients who have not responded well to lithium therapy. Blurred vision and abnormal eye movement are two possible side effects of carbamazepine therapy. As of early 1998, carbamazepine did not have an FDA-cleared indication for mania.
Valproate (divalproex sodium, or Depakote; valproic acid, or Depakene) is one of the few drugs available that has been proven effective in treating rapid cycling bipolar and mixed states patients. Valproate is prescribed alone or in combination with carbamazepine and/or lithium. Stomach cramps, indigestion, diarrhea, hair loss, appetite loss, nausea, and unusual weight loss or gain are some of the common side effects of valproate. Note: valproate is also approved for the treatment of mania.
MAOIs such as tranylcypromine (Parnate) and phenelzine (Nardil) block the action of monoamine oxidase (MAO), an enzyme in the central nervous system. Patients taking MAOIs must cut foods high in tyramine (found in aged cheeses and meats) out of their diet to avoid hypotensive side effects.
Bupropion (Wellbutrin) is a heterocyclic antidepressant. The exact neurochemical mechanism of the drug is not known, but it has been effective in regulating bipolar depression in some patients. Side effects of bupropion include agitation, anxiety, confusion, tremor, dry mouth, fast or irregular heartbeat, headache, and insomnia.
ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy, has a high success rate for treating both unipolar and bipolar depression, and mania. However, because of the convenience of drug treatment and the stigma sometimes attached to ECT therapy, ECT is usually employed after all pharmaceutical treatment options have been explored. ECT is given under anesthesia and patients are given a muscle relaxant medication to prevent convulsions. The treatment consists of a series of electrical pulses that move into the brain through electrodes on the patient's head. Although the exact mechanisms behind the success of ECT therapy are not known, it is believed that this electrical current alters the electrochemical processes of the brain, consequently relieving depression. Headaches, muscle soreness, nausea, and confusion are possible side effects immediately following an ECT procedure. Temporary memory loss has also been reported in ECT patients. In bipolar patients, ECT is often used in conjunction with drug therapy.
Adjunct treatments are used in conjunction with a long-term pharmaceutical treatment plan:
Long-acting benzodiazepines such as clonazepam (Klonapin) and alprazolam (Xanax) are used for rapid treatment of manic symptoms to calm and sedate patients until mania or hypomania have waned and mood stabilizing agents can take effect. Sedation is a common effect, and clumsiness, lightheadedness, and slurred speech are other possible side effects of benzodiazepines.
Neuroleptics such as chlorpromazine (Thorazine) and haloperidol (Haldol) are also used to control mania while a mood stabilizer such as lithium or valproate takes effect. Because neuroleptic side effects can be severe (difficulty in speaking or swallowing, paralysis of the eyes, loss of balance control, muscle spasms, severe restlessness, stiffness of arms and legs, tremors in fingers and hands, twisting movements of body, and weakness of arms and legs), benzodiazepines are generally preferred over neuroleptics.
Psychotherapy and counseling. Because bipolar disorder is thought to be biological in nature, therapy is recommended as a companion to, but not a substitute for, pharmaceutical treatment of the disease. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be a useful tool in helping patients and their families adjust to the disorder, in encouraging compliance to a medication regimen, and in reducing the risk of suicide. Also, educative counseling is recommended for the patient and family.
Calcium channel blockers (nimodipine, or Nimotop), typically used to treat angina and hypotension,have been found effective, in a few small studies, for treating rapid cyclers. Calcium channel blockers stop the excess calcium build up in cells that is thought to be a cause of bipolar disorder. They are usually used in conjunction with other drug therapies such as carbamazepine or lithium.
Clozapine (Clozaril) is an atypical antipsychotic medication used to control manic episodes in patients who have not responded to typical mood stabilizing agents. The drug has also been a useful prophylactic, or preventative treatment, in some bipolar patients. Common side effects of clozapine include tachycardia (rapid heart rate), hypotension, constipation, and weight gain. Agranulocytosis, a potentially serious but reversible condition in which the white blood cells that typically fight infection in the body are destroyed, is a possible side effect of clozapine. Patients treated with the drug should undergo weekly blood tests to monitor white blood cell counts.
Risperidone (Risperdal) is an atypical antipsychotic medication that has been successful in controlling mania in several clinical trials when low doses were administered. The side effects of risperidone are mild compared to many other antipsychotics (constipation, coughing, diarrhea, dry mouth, headache, heartburn, increased length of sleep and dream activity, nausea, runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, and weight gain).
Lamotrigine (Lamictal, or LTG), an anticonvulsant medication, was found to alleviate manic symptoms in a 1997 trial of 75 bipolar patients. The drug was used in conjunction with divalproex (divalproate) and/or lithium. Possible side effects of lamotrigine include skin rash, dizziness, drowsiness, headache, nausea and vomiting.
rTMS, or repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation is a new and still experimental treatment for the depressive phase of bipolar disorder. In rTMS, a large magnet is placed on the patient's head and magnetic fields of different frequency are generated to stimulate the left front cortex of the brain. Unlike ECT, rTMS requires no anesthesia and does not induce seizures.
Paula Anne Ford-Martin, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,