How do medications treat bipolar depression?

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Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Medicine
Researchers are still investigating how medications treat bipolar depression, and bipolar disorder in general. The primary treatment is usually a mood stabilization drug. Lithium is often the first choice for controlling an episode of mania and for preventing the recurrence of depression. As an alternative to lithium, doctors often prescribe valproic acid (also known as divalproex sodium) because its side effects are less severe for most people. They sometimes prescribe anticonvulsant drugs, such as lamotrigine, gabapentin, topiramate and oxcarbazepine, which may work as mood stabilizers as well. Atypical antipsychotic drugs may help as well. Among the ones most often used for bipolar disorder are olanzapine, aripiprazole, quetiapine, risperidone and ziprasidone. Some doctors prescribe antidepressants, too, though research suggests that these are not effective. All of these drugs can have side effects, some of them serious. In addition to medication, most patients undertake some kind of psychotherapy in which a mental health expert helps them figure out what modifications to behavior or attitude will help control their symptoms. Electroconvulsive therapy, a refined form of the treatment formerly known as shock therapy, may benefit some patients who are not helped by medication or cannot use medication.
Most of the time, symptoms of depression in bipolar disorder are managed using mood-stabilizing medication, such as lithium and certain anti-seizure drugs. Sometimes doctors prescribe an anti-depressant, but usually only along with a mood stabilizer. Taking an anti-depressant alone can cause people with bipolar to have a manic episode or begin alternating rapidly between manic and depressive symptoms.

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Depression Treatment

Depression Treatment

Because it is a multi-faceted condition, treatment for depression is multi-faceted as well. Minor depression can often be treated with therapy and a few simple lifestyle changes, while chronic or major depression treatment can req...

uire medication in addition to therapy. In some severe cases, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be used. It's important to work with your mental health professional to determine which course of treatment for your type of depression is most appropriate.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.