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Treatment for bipolar disorder aims to reduce the severity and number of episodes of depression and mania to allow as normal a life as possible.
If a person isn't treated, episodes of bipolar-related mania can last for between three and six months. Episodes of depression tend to last longer, for between six and 12 months.
However, with effective treatment, episodes usually improve within about three months.
Most people with bipolar disorder can be treated using a combination of different treatments. These can include one or more of the following:
Read more about living with bipolar disorder.
Most people with bipolar disorder can receive most of their treatment without having to stay in hospital.
However, hospital treatment may be needed if your symptoms are severe, or if you're being treated under the Mental Health Act, as there's a danger you may self-harm or hurt others.
In some circumstances, you could have treatment in a day hospital and return home at night.
Several medications are available to help stabilise mood swings. These are commonly referred to as mood stabilisers and include:
If you're already taking medication for bipolar disorder and you develop depression, your GP will check you're taking the correct dose. If you aren't, they'll change it.
Episodes of depression are treated slightly differently in bipolar disorder, as the use of antidepressants alone may lead to a hypomanic relapse.
Most guidelines suggest depression in bipolar disorder can be treated with just a mood stabiliser. However, antidepressants are commonly used alongside a mood stabiliser or antipsychotic.
Read more about antidepressants.
If your GP or psychiatrist recommends you stop taking medication for bipolar disorder, the dose should be gradually reduced over at least four weeks, and up to three months if you are taking an antipsychotic or lithium.
If you have to stop taking lithium for any reason, see your GP about taking an antipsychotic or valproate instead.
In the UK, lithium carbonate (often referred to as just lithium) is the medication most commonly used to treat bipolar disorder.
Lithium is a long-term method of treatment for episodes of mania, hypomania and depression. It's usually prescribed for at least six months.
If you're prescribed lithium, stick to the prescribed dose and don't stop taking it suddenly (unless told to by your doctor).
For lithium to be effective, the dosage must be correct. If it's incorrect, you may get side effects such as diarrhoea and vomiting. However, tell your doctor immediately if you have side effects while taking lithium.
You'll need regular blood tests at least every three months while taking lithium. This is to make sure your lithium levels aren't too high or too low.
Your kidney and thyroid function will also need to be checked every two to three months if the dose of lithium is being adjusted, and every 12 months in all other cases.
In the UK, lithium and the antipsychotic medicine aripiprazole are currently the only medications licensed for use in adolescents with bipolar disorder who are aged 13 or over.
However, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health states that unlicensed medicines may be prescribed for children if there are no suitable alternatives and their use can be justified by expert agreement.
Anticonvulsant medicines include:
These medicines are sometimes used to treat episodes of mania. They're also long-term mood stabilisers.
Anticonvulsant medicines are often used to treat epilepsy, but they're also effective in treating bipolar disorder.
A single anticonvulsant medicine may be used, or they may be used in combination with lithium when the condition doesn't respond to lithium on its own.
Valproate isn't usually prescribed for women of childbearing age because there's a risk of physical defects to babies such as spina bifida, heart abnormalities and cleft lip. There may also be an increased risk of developmental problems such as lower intellectual abilities, poor speaking and understanding, memory problems, autistic spectrum disorders and delayed walking and talking.
Learn more about the risks of valproate medicines during pregnancy.
In women, your GP may decide to use valporate if there's no alternative or if you've been assessed and it's unlikely you'll respond to other treatments, although they'll need to check you're using a reliable contraception and advise you on the risks of taking the medicine during pregnancy.
If you're prescribed valproate, you'll need to visit your GP to have a blood count when you begin the medication, and then again six months later.
Carbamazepine is usually only prescribed on the advice of an expert in bipolar disorder. To begin with, the dose will be low and then gradually increased.
Your progress will be carefully monitored if you're taking other medication, including the contraceptive pill.
Blood tests to check your liver and kidney function will be carried out when you start taking carbamazepine, and again after six months.
You'll also need to have a blood count at the start and after six months, and you may also have your weight and height monitored.
If you're prescribed lamotrigine, you'll usually be started on a low dose, which will be increased gradually.
See your GP immediately if you're taking lamotrigine and develop a rash. You'll need to have an annual health check, but other tests aren't usually needed.
Women who are taking the contraceptive pill should talk to their GP about taking a different method of contraception.
Antipsychotic medicines are sometimes prescribed to treat episodes of mania or hypomania. Antipsychotic medicines include:
They may also be used as a long-term mood stabiliser. Quetiapine may also be used for long-term bipolar depression.
Antipsychotic medicines can be particularly useful if symptoms are severe or behaviour is disturbed. As antipsychotics can cause side effects – such as blurred vision, dry mouth, constipation and weight gain – the initial dose will usually be low.
If you're prescribed an antipsychotic medicine, you'll need to have regular health checks at least every three months, but possibly more often, particularly if you have diabetes. If your symptoms don't improve, you may be offered lithium and valproate as well.
Aripiprazole is also recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as an option for treating moderate to severe manic episodes in adolescents with bipolar disorder.
You may be prescribed a combination of lithium and valproate if you experience rapid cycling (where you quickly change from highs to lows without a "normal" period in between).
If this doesn't help, you may be offered lithium on its own or a combination of lithium, valproate and lamotrigine.
However, you won't usually be prescribed an antidepressant unless an expert in bipolar disorder has recommended it.
If you have bipolar disorder, you can learn to recognise the warning signs of an approaching episode of mania or depression.
A community mental health worker, such as a psychiatric nurse, may be able to help you identify your early signs of relapse from your history.
This won't prevent the episode occurring, but it will allow you to get help in time.
This may mean making some changes to your treatment, perhaps by adding an antidepressant or antipsychotic medicine to the mood-stabilising medication you're already taking. Your GP or specialist can advise you on this.
Some people find psychological treatment helpful when used alongside medication in between episodes of mania or depression. This may include:
Psychological treatment usually consists of around 16 sessions. Each session lasts an hour and takes place over a period of six to nine months.
The management of bipolar disorder in women who are pregnant, or those who are trying to conceive, is complex and challenging.
One of the main problems is the risks of taking medication during pregnancy aren't always that well understood.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that the risks of treating or not treating women with bipolar disorder during pregnancy should be fully discussed.
NICE also recommends that specialist mental health services work closely with maternity services.
A written plan for managing the treatment of a pregnant woman with bipolar disorder should be developed as soon as possible.
The plan should be drawn up with the patient, her partner, her obstetrician (pregnancy specialist), midwife, GP and health visitor.
The following medication isn't routinely prescribed for pregnant women with bipolar disorder:
If you become pregnant while taking medication prescribed to treat bipolar disorder, it's important that you don't stop taking it until you've discussed it with your doctor.
If medication is prescribed for bipolar disorder after the baby is born, it may also affect a mother's decision to breastfeed her child. Your pharmacist, midwife or mental health team can give you advice based on your circumstances.