Medical Grand Rounds

Diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder in primary care

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Dr. Z is a prominent surgical subspecialist who is part of a small group practice. His wife has become increasingly worried about his behavior changes at home, including sleeping only a few hours a night, spending sprees, and binge drinking. He reluctantly agrees to an outpatient psychiatric evaluation if she attends with him. He creates a disturbance in the waiting room by shaking everyone’s hands and trying to hug all the women. During his examination, he is loud and expansive, denying he has any problems and describing himself as “the greatest doctor in the world.” The psychiatrist recommends hospitalization, but Dr. Z refuses and becomes belligerent. He announces that he just needs a career change and that he will fly to Mexico to open a bar.

This case, from the Texas Medical Association Archives,55 is not unusual. In addition to many characteristics discussed above, this case is typical in that the spouse brought the patient in, reflecting that the patient lacked insight that his behavior was abnormal. The disinhibition (hugging women), grandiosity, and unrealistic plans are also typical.


Medications that can induce manic symptoms
Other conditions can resemble bipolar disorder.56,57 For example, attention deficit disorder is also associated with distractibility, speaking too fast, and hyperactivity, but it is constant rather than episodic. Impulse control disorders (eg, excessive gambling, hypersexuality) are not usually associated with euphoria or other manic symptoms. Substance abuse disorder, such as episodic use of cocaine, may resemble manic episodes. Prescription drugs can also trigger mania (Table 2).58

Anxiety disorders may be associated with dissociative speech or racing thoughts, which can be confused with bipolar illness. Personality disorders (eg, borderline, narcissistic, sociopathic) can involve a tumultuous and impulsive lifestyle resembling episodes of depression and mania. Schizoaffective illness has features of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

It is also possible that, despite what may look like mild features of bipolar disorder, there is no psychiatric condition. Some people with mild mania—often successful professionals or politicians—have high energy and can function very well with only a few hours of sleep. Similarly, depressive symptoms for short periods of time can be adaptive, such as in the face of a serious setback when extreme reflection and a period of inactivity can be useful, leading to subsequent reorganization.

A psychiatric diagnosis is usually made only when there is an abnormality, ie, the behavior is beyond normal limits, the person cannot control his or her symptoms, or social or occupational functioning is impaired.


A few tools help determine the likelihood of bipolar disorder.

The Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9)59,60 is a good 9-item screening tool for depression.

The Mood Disorder Questionnaire60 is specific for bipolar disorder, and like the PHQ-9, it is a patient-reported, short questionnaire that is available free online. The Mood Disorder Questionnaire asks about the symptoms of mania in a yes-no format. The result is positive if all of the following are present:

  • A “yes” response to 7 of the 13 features
  • Several features occur simultaneously
  • The features are a moderate or serious problem.

Unlike most screening instruments, the Mood Disorder Questionnaire is more specific than sensitive. It is 93% specific for bipolar disorder in patients treated for depression in a primary care setting, but only 58% sensitive.61–63


Patients suspected of having bipolar disorder or who have been previously diagnosed with it should be referred to a psychiatrist if they have certain features, including:

  • Bipolar I disorder
  • Psychotic symptoms
  • Suicide risk or in danger of harming others
  • Significantly impaired functioning
  • Unclear diagnosis.


According to a famous news anchor’s autobiography,64 the steroids prescribed for her hives “revved her up.” The next course left her depressed. Antidepressant medications propelled her into a manic state, and she was soon planning a book, a television show, and a magazine all at once. During that time, she bought a cottage online. Her shyness evaporated at parties. “I was suddenly the equal of my high-energy friends who move fast and talk fast and loud,” she wrote. “I told everyone that I could understand why men felt like they could run the world, because I felt like that. This was a new me, and I liked her!”64 She was soon diagnosed with bipolar disorder and admitted to a psychiatric clinic.

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