Medical Grand Rounds

Diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder in primary care

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In general, acute bipolar disorder should be treated with a combination of an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer, and possibly an antipsychotic drug. An antidepressant should not be used alone, particularly with patients with a diagnosis of bipolar I disorder, because of the risk of triggering mania or the risk of faster cycling between mania and depression.13

Mood stabilizers include lithium, lamotrigine, and valproate. Each can prevent episodes of depression and mania. Lithium, which has been used as a mood stabilizer for 60 years, is specific for bipolar disorder, and it remains the best mood stabilizer treatment.

Antidepressants. The first-line antidepressant medication is bupropion, which is thought to be less likely to precipitate a manic episode,65 though all antidepressants have been associated with this side effect in patients with bipolar disorder. Other antidepressants—for example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as fluoxetine and dual reuptake inhibitors such as venlafaxine and duloxetine—can also be used. The precipitation of mania and possible increased mood cycling was first described with tricylic antidepressants, so drugs of this class should be used with caution.

Neuroleptic drugs such as aripiprazole, quetiapine, and lurasidone may be the easiest drugs to use, as they have antidepressant effects and can also prevent the occurrence of mania. These medications are frequently classified as mood stabilizers. However, they may not have true mood stabilizing properties such as that of lithium. Importantly, their use tends to entail significant metabolic problems and can lead to hyperlipidemia and diabetes. In addition, Parkinson disease-like symptoms— and in some cases irreversible involuntary movements of the mouth and tongue, as well as the body (tardive dyskinesia)—are important possible side effects.

Side effects of treatments for bipolar disorder
Therefore, neuroleptic drugs should be used only with caution as first-line treatment for bipolar depression. However, they can be used as first-line treatment for psychotic bipolar depression in combination with an antidepressant.

All psychiatric medications have potential side effects (Table 3). Newer antidepressants and neuroleptics may have fewer side effects than older medications but are not more effective.

Should milder forms of bipolar depression be treated?

A dilemma is whether we should treat milder forms of bipolar depression, such as bipolar II depression, depression with subthreshold hypomania symptoms, or depression in persons with a strong family history of bipolar disorder.

Many doctors are justifiably reluctant to prescribe antidepressants for depression because of the risk of triggering mania. Although mood stabilizers such as lithium would counteract possible mania emergence, physicians often do not prescribe them because of inexperience and fear of risks and possible side effects. Patients are likewise resistant because they feel that use of mood stabilizers is tantamount to being told they are “manic-depressive,” with its associated stigma.

Overuse of atypical neuroleptics such as aripiprazole, quetiapine, and olanzapine has led to an awareness of metabolic syndrome and tardive dyskinesia, also making doctors cautious about using these drugs.

Answer: Yes, but treat with caution

Not treating depression consigns a patient to suffer with untreated depression, sometimes for years. Outcomes for patients with depression and bipolar disorder are often poor because the conditions are not recognized, and even when the conditions are recognized, doctors and patients may be reluctant to medicate appropriately. Medications should be used as needed to treat depression, but with an awareness of the possible side effects and with close patient monitoring.

A truly sustained manic state (unlike the brief euphoria brought on by some drugs) is not actually so easy to induce. In an unpublished Cleveland Clinic study, we monitored peaks of hypomanic symptoms in young patients (ages 15–30) during antidepressant treatment without mood stabilizers. About 30% to 40% of patients had subthreshold manic symptoms or a family history of bipolar disorder; 3 patients out of 51 developed hypomania leading to a change of diagnosis to bipolar disorder. Even in patients who had no risk factors for bipolar disorder, 2 out of 53 converted to a bipolar diagnosis. So conversion rates in patients with subthreshold bipolar disorder seem to be low, and the disorder can be identified early by monitoring the patient closely.


Psychotherapy is indicated for all patients on medications for depression, as both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments are more effective when combined.66 Other treatments include trans­cranial magnetic stimulation, electroconvulsive therapy, light therapy, and exercise. Having a consistent daily routine, particularly regarding the sleep-wake schedule, is also helpful, and patients should be educated about its importance.

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