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Bipolar Center

Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

Bipolar may be difficult to diagnose and some people can experience bipolar disorder for years before anyone knows. This is because bipolar symptoms mimic several different problems and it takes time to recognize that symptoms are part of a bigger problem. Furthermore, a doctor may consider different mental illness, like schizophrenia or depression, as the cause of manic and depressive episodes. People with bipolar disorder frequently experience other health problems which make it hard for doctors to identify bipolar disorder. Possible illnesses include anxiety disorders, heart disease, substance abuse, thyroid disease, and/or obesity.

Bipolar disorder can be first diagnosed by your family doctor, who may want you to see a psychiatrist that specializes in mental illnesses. When doctors suspect bipolar disorder, they request medical and psychological tests to rule out other problems, pinpoint a diagnosis and check for related complications. These exams and tests generally include a routine physical exam followed by laboratory tests like a blood tests, thyroid tests and urinalysis. 

Medical history
A doctor or mental health specialist will talk to you about your thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns. It's helpful to review the list of symptoms of bipolar disorder to familiarize yourself with them before completing psychological self-assessments and questionnaires. You may be asked about substance or alcohol abuse. And with your permission, the doctor may ask your contacts to provide information about your symptoms and possible episodes of mania or depression.

Medical exams
Mental health specialists use criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnose mental conditions like bipolar disorder.  Some experts believe the current diagnostic criteria are too strict, though and would prefer that bipolar disorder be considered as a spectrum of disorders, with varying degrees of symptoms.  Diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder are based on the:

  • types of episodes (manic, hypomanic or depressive)
  • history of manic-depressive episodes
  • type of bipolar disorder

Manic episodes - A manic episode is diagnosed if elevated mood occurs with three or more of the following symptoms throughout most of the day, nearly every day, for 1 week or longer. If the mood is irritable, four additional symptoms must be present. It's important to note that a manic episode is a lasting period of behavior that is different from usual.  In the most severe cases of bipolar disorder, delusions and hallucinations may be present as well. 

Hypomanic episodes - A hypomanic episode is similar to a manic episode but much briefer, lasting only a few days, and not as severe. During hypomania, people experience an elevated mood, irritability and some changes in functioning, but generally you can carry on with a normal daily routine and don't require hospitalization.

Depressive episodes - A depressive episode is diagnosed if five or more of these symptoms last most of the day, nearly every day, for a period of 2 weeks or longer.

Severe episodes of either mania or depression may result in psychosis, or a detachment from reality. Symptoms of psychosis include hearing or seeing things that aren't there (hallucinations) and false but strongly held beliefs (delusions).

People diagnosed with bipolar disorder can lead healthy and productive lives when the illness is effectively treated.  If you exhibit any symptoms of bipolar disorder, seek medical help as soon as possible. Bipolar disorder doesn't get better on its own. For more information, continue reading to learn about bipolar medications and treatment options now.

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