Bipolar Disorder: Recognizing and Treating in Primary Care

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Bipolar patients are often depressed or euthymic for a majority of their lives but can also present in a manic or hypomanic state. In primary care settings, these patients often present with depression (including postpartum depression), which can obscure the diagnosis. Misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder as recurrent unipolar depression occurs in 60% of patients seeking treatment for depression.9

Patients with bipolar disorder who pre­sent to primary care usually demonstrate a wide range of mood symptomatology other than depression, including mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and the inability to focus or concentrate. Patients can also present in mixed states. These are characterized by elements of irritability, increased energy, and sleeplessness with depressive features.

Several clues that can assist in detecting bipolar disorder relate to age at onset, family history, mood shifts, seasonality, and atypical depressive symptoms (eg, sleep dysregulation and appetite changes). Although the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is commonly delayed by many years, patients often report significant mood symptoms in their early 20s. In a study that used a self-administered questionnaire to assess the experience of persons living with bipolar disorder, 33% of the respondents were younger than 15 when their symptoms first started, 27% were between 15 and 19, and 39% were 20 or older.9 Parental and family history of bipolar disorder increases risk for the disorder in offspring, so a thorough family history is essential when the disorder is suspected.

Aside from the classic presentation defined by the DSM-5 criteria, patients with bipolar disorder can also exhibit other effects of their illness, such as alcohol-related problems and sexually transmitted or drug-related infections. In patients with bipolar disorder, rates of alcohol use range from 21.4% in adults to 54.5% in adolescents and young adults.10 Social history may reveal relationship and marital issues, financial problems, difficulties keeping a job, and legal problems.9,11 Suicide attempts and completed suicides are significantly more common among persons with bipolar disorder than among the general population.12,13

Comorbidity with at least one other disorder is common in bipolar disorder.5 The most common comorbid personality disorder associated with bipolar disorder is borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by ongoing instability in moods and behavior. Persons with this disorder can experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last from hours to days. The high prevalence of persistent symptoms despite treatment in bipolar disorder and the unstable and partly remitting course of borderline personality make it difficult to distinguish between the two disorders.14 The frequent mood changes that occur with borderline personality disorder may appear to overlap with the mood swings characterizing bipolar disorder, but the mood episodes in borderline personality disorder are of shorter duration than those in bipolar disorder. Other common comorbid disorders seen in patients with bipolar disorder include substance abuse disorders, anxiety disorders (especially panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.5

Primary care providers should be aware of other common comorbidities that may be present in patients with bipolar disorder. These patients commonly experience medical problems such as diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome, which all lead to increased cardiovascular risk.15-17


The initial clinical evaluation of the patient should include a thorough medical, social, family, and psychiatric history. Medical conditions that may mimic bipolar disorder include neurologic conditions (eg, partial seizures, neoplasm, strokes, dementia, delirium) and endocrine disorders (eg, Cushing disease, hyperthyroidism/hypothyroidism), as well as vitamin deficiencies (B12, folate, niacin, thiamine) and drug and substance use/misuse (alcohol, drugs including antidepressants and stimulants).4 All patients should have a baseline complete physical examination, including neurologic and mental status examinations. Diagnostic tests to assess for potential differential diagnoses and evaluate baseline levels include the following:

  • Basic metabolic panel, including fasting glucose, to evaluate electrolytes and risk for diabetes or Cushing disease, and to assess baseline renal function
  • Thyroid function tests
  • Complete blood count to assess status prior to anticonvulsant treatment (eg, carbamazepine)
  • Pregnancy test if applicable (prior to use of medications)
  • Liver function tests to assess baseline measurements prior to use of medications
  • Electrocardiography in patients older than 40 to establish baseline and assess QTc interval, especially with use of antipsychotics and carbamazepine
  • Urine toxicology screen (to rule out substance abuse).


Psychiatric evaluation should focus on age at onset of symptoms, the presence of hypomanic or manic symptoms, prior response to antidepressants, course of the disease including history and duration of depression or manic/hypomanic episodes, and sleep disturbances (increased during depressive episodes and significantly decreased during manic episodes). It is important to assess for a history of self-harm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, hospitalizations, legal issues, multiple career shifts, marriage and relationship issues, and smoking and alcohol/substance misuse. Patients with severe manic or depressive episodes may experience psychotic features such as grandiose or paranoid delusions and hallucinations. A history of symptoms from close family members or friends can assist in the diagnosis of bipolar patients.

The use of DSM-5 criteria, as summarized earlier, improves the accuracy of bipolar diagnosis.3 In addition, validated tools are available to help clinicians screen for bipolar disorder, although it is important to remember that a positive screening result is not sufficient to establish a bipolar disorder diagnosis. A widely used instrument that has been validated for screening for bipolar disorder is the MDQ (available at www.dbsalliance.org/pdfs/MDQ.pdf). This self-report questionnaire consists of 15 questions that assess hypomanic or manic symptoms and functional impairment. The first 13 questions of the MDQ screen for a lifetime history of DSM-based hypomanic or manic symptoms. The last two questions ask whether these symptoms occurred at the same time and whether they caused dysfunction in various domains, such as work and family life. The MDQ is considered positive if a patient endorses at least seven of the symptom items, indicates that symptoms have occurred at the same time, and rates their dysfunction in life domains as “moderate” or “serious.” As a screening tool, the MDQ has a reported sensitivity of 73% and a specificity of 90% for bipolar disorder.11 This questionnaire can and should be used by primary care providers to help determine if their patient is at risk and requires a comprehensive evaluation for bipolar disorder.

Notably, even after a clinician has properly diagnosed bipolar disorder, patients and family members are often reluctant to commence treatment due to the stigma associated with mental health disorders.18 To help offset the effects of stigma, patients should be referred for psychologic counseling, including family counseling.

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