Bipolar disorder is more common than previously thought, but this illness, particularly bipolar disorder II, is still poorly recognized in the family-practice setting. It is estimated that only a third of affected people are accurately diagnosed.
When making a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, it is important that the doctor rule out other conditions that may be causing symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Distinguishing Mania from Normal Euphoria or Joy. A major difficulty with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is the tendency for a patient to be unable to recognize his or her own condition, particularly when in the manic state. Patients often deny their symptoms, which may be perceived as positive feelings. The doctor should take a careful and complete history of any and all episodes of depression, mania, or both. Hypomania, the less severe variant of mania, may be particularly difficult to distinguish from normal joy or euphoria. It can often be distinguished by the following characteristics:
Distinguishing Unipolar from Bipolar Depression. Before a manic episode occurs, the condition is often diagnosed as major depression. An accurate diagnosis is important because patients with bipolar disorder who are inappropriately medicated solely with antidepressants have a higher incidence of rehospitalization than do other bipolar disorder patients.
Bipolar disorder should be suspected in patients who have been treated for depression and who had a fast and good response, followed by the return of depression and failure to respond to other antidepressant treatment.
A family history of manic-depressive illness may make a doctor suspicious, but a diagnosis of bipolar disorder cannot be established until a manic or hypomanic episode has occurred. Patients with bipolar II disorder and those with depressive mixed state are most likely to be misdiagnosed with unipolar depression.
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Children or adolescents with bipolar disorder may be inappropriately diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD and bipolar disorder often cause inattention and distractibility, and the two disorders may be difficult to distinguish, particularly in children. In some cases, ADHD in children or adolescents can even be a marker for an emerging bipolar disorder. The primary distinction between bipolar disorder and ADHD is the presence of a manic or hypomanic episode, which occurs in patients with bipolar disorder but not those with ADHD.
Schizophrenia. Severe manic episodes that include delusions and hallucinations may be easily confused with schizophrenia. (African-American men are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than with bipolar disorder.) The key factors that distinguish bipolar disorder from schizophrenia include:
Substance Abuse. Up to 60% of patients with bipolar disorder abuse alcohol or drugs at some point during their illness. Both diagnosis and treatment are difficult in such cases, since substance abuse is often a method of self-treatment, and withdrawal can produce symptoms of mania or severe depression. The effects of cocaine in a heavy user can also produce abnormal mood swings that closely resemble those of bipolar disorder.
Other Causes of Mood Swings. Other conditions that can cause mood swings include:
Patients should be tested for drugs or alcohol if the doctor suspects that they have been using these substances. Blood tests for thyroid function should also be performed.
Noninvasive imaging tests of the brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron-emission tomographic (PET) scans are being evaluated in clinical trials for detecting abnormalities in the brain. The results of these tests may eventually help identify bipolar disorder and test the effectiveness of various treatments. However, imaging tests do not currently play a role in diagnosing bipolar disorder.
The number of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder has increased dramatically during the past decade. Psychiatrists debate whether bipolar disorder was formerly under-diagnosed in children or whether it is being over-diagnosed now. Part of the controversy concerns the diagnostic criteria used for children and adolescents. Some bipolar symptoms, such as irritable mania, share characteristics with common childhood anger outbursts or behavioral disorders such as conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In addition, many children with bipolar disorder also have behavioral and developmental disorders. These overlapping conditions can complicate diagnosis.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACP) recommends that doctors use specific screening questions to diagnose bipolar disorder. These questions are designed to evaluate periods of mood changes associated with sleep disorders and restlessness. Doctors should also ask about family histories of mood disorders. The AACP cautions that the validity of diagnosing bipolar disorder in children younger than 6 years old has not been established.
Bipolar disorder is treated with powerful psychiatric drugs that can cause serious side effects. It is very important to make sure that a child‚ ' s symptoms are due to bipolar disorder, rather than emotional or behavioral issues, before prescribing these medications.
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