Find information on medical topics, symptoms, drugs, procedures, news and more, written in everyday language.

* This is the Consumer Version. *

Bipolar Disorder

(Manic-Depressive Disorder)

by William Coryell, MD

In bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive illness), episodes of depression alternate with episodes of mania or a less severe form of mania called hypomania. Mania is characterized by excessive physical activity and feelings of elation that are greatly out of proportion to the situation.

  • Heredity probably plays a part in bipolar disorder.

  • Episodes of depression and mania may occur separately or together.

  • People have one or more periods of excessive sadness and loss of interest in life and one or more periods of elation, extreme energy, and often irritability, with periods of relatively normal mood in between.

  • Doctors base the diagnosis on the pattern of symptoms.

  • Drugs that stabilize mood, such as lithium, certain anticonvulsants (drugs usually used to treat seizures), and sometimes psychotherapy can help.

Bipolar disorder is so named because it includes the two extremes, or poles, of mood disorders—depression and mania. It affects about 4% of the U.S. population to some degree. Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally. Bipolar disorder usually begins in a person’s teens, 20s, or 30s and rarely earlier (see Bipolar Disorder in Children and Adolescents (Manic-Depressive Illness)).

Most bipolar disorders can be classified as

  • Bipolar I disorder: People have had at least one full-fledged manic episode (one that prevents them from functioning normally or that includes delusions) and usually depressive episodes.

  • Bipolar II disorder: People have had major depressive episodes, at least one less severe manic (hypomanic) episode, but no full-fledged manic episodes.

However, some people have episodes that resemble a bipolar disorder but that do not meet the specific criteria for bipolar I or II disorder. Such episodes may be classified as unspecified bipolar disorder or cyclothymic disorder (see Cyclothymic Disorder).

Did You Know...

  • Certain physical disorders and drugs can cause symptoms of bipolar disorder.

  • People experiencing mania often think they are in their best form.

Resources In This Article

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

  • Generic Name
    Select Brand Names