Mental Illness Treatment

Bipolar Disorder Treatment Guidelines

evidence-based treatment of bipolar disorder

In 2013 the International Society for Bipolar Disorders and the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments combed through the scientific literature and put together these guidelines for the pharmacological treatment of bipolar disorder.  Treatments are classified as 1st, 2nd, or 3rd line based on the strength of existing evidence to support their effectiveness.  Also included are treatments that are sometimes used in bipolar disorder but for whatever reason don’t necessarily have a research base to back them up.

No treatment guideline in the world is going to be able to say what treatment is going to work in a specific individual.  However, they can provide a good idea of what has the best chance of working, and I think it’s always valuable to know what your options are.

Here are the recommendations for acute mania, acute depression, and maintenance treatment.

Acute mania

1st line

  • lithium
  • divalproex
  • atypical antipsychotic: risperidone, paliperidone, olanzapine, quetiapine, aripiprazole, ziprasidone, asenapine

2nd line

  • carbamazepine (mood stabilizer)
  • haloperidol (typical antipsychotic)

Not supported by evidence

  • gabapentin
  • lamotrigine
  • topiramate

Acute bipolar depression

1st line

  • lithium
  • lamotrigine
  • quetiapine
  • lithium/divalproex + selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) or bupropion
  • olanzapine + SSRI
  • lithium + divalproex

2nd line

  • divalproex
  • lurasidone (an atypical antipsychotic)
  • quetiapine + SSRI
  • modafinil (stimulant)
  • lithium/divalproex + lamotrigine or lurasidone

3rd line

  • carbamazepine
  • olanzapine as monotherapy (i.e. the only treatment)
  • electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)
  • lithium combined with carbamazepine, pramipexole, or an MAOI antidepressant
  • lithium/divalproex + venlafaxine or tricyclic antidepressant
  • lithium/divalproex/carbamazepine + SSRI + lamotrigine
  • quetiapine + lamotrigine

Not supported by evidence

  • gabapentin
  • aripiprazole
  • ziprasidone

Acute bipolar II depression

1st line

  • quetiapine

2nd line

  • lithium
  • lamotrigine
  • divalproex
  • lithium/divalproex + antidepressant
  • lithium + divalproex
  • atypical antipsychotic + antidepressant

3rd line

  • antidepressant monotherapy
  • quetiapine + lamotrigine
  • ECT
  • N -acetyl cysteine
  • T3 form of thyroid hormone

Maintenance therapy

1st line

  • lithium
  • lamotrigine
  • divalproex
  • atypical antipsychotics: olanzapine, quetiapine, risperidone, aripiprazole
  • lithium/divalproex + quetiapine/risperidone/aripiprazole/ziprasidone

2nd line

  • carbamazepine
  • paliperidone
  • lithium + divalproex/carbamazepine
  • lithium/divalproex + olanzapine
  • lithium + risperidone or lamotrigine
  • olanzapine + fluoxetine

3rd line

Not supported by evidence

  • gabapentin, topiramate, or antidepressants when used alone as monotherapy
  • flupenthixol as an adjunctive treatment

The role of antidepressants

Antidepressants don’t always work well in bipolar disorder, and they can potentially do more harm than good.  In case you’re interested, the International Society for Bipolar Disorder has a task force report on the use of antidepressants in bipolar disorder. Here’s a quick overview of their findings.

  1. Do short-term antidepressants work for bipolar depression?


    There's evidence to support a few specific options: fluoxetine in combination with quetiapine, and paroxetine or bupropion added to a mood stabilizer.

  2. Can antidepressants be used for long-term maintenance for bipolar?


    There isn't good evidence to support this being effective.

  3. Can antidepressants on their own be used for bipolar depression?


    The evidence does not support the use of antidepressant monotherapy for bipolar I depression. The picture is somewhat more optimistic in bipolar II, but still, the quality of evidence is weak.

  4. Should antidepressants be used in bipolar mixed states?


    The evidence doesn't support this.

  5. When is are antidepressants most likely to cause a manic switch?


    A manic switch as a result of antidepressants is more likely (and more likely to be severe) in bipolar I. Tricyclic antidepressants, mirtazapine, and possibly SNRIs (e.g. venlafaxine) may be more likely to trigger a manic switch than other antidepressants.


And there you have it, folks.  Was there anything in the guidelines that surprised you?  And for those with bipolar disorder, how does your treatment regimen compare to what’s in the guidelines?

Mood stabilizers: lithium, anticonvulsants, and atypical antipsychotics

For more posts on psychiatric medications, visit the Psych Meds Made Simple page. There’s also a Psych Meds 101 series covering:

Reference

Yatham, L.N., et al. (2013). Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments (CANMAT) and International Society for Bipolar Disorders (ISBD) collaborative update of CANMAD guidelines for the management of patients with bipolar disorder: Update 2013. Bipolar Disorders, 15, 1-44.

The abstract is available on PubMed.

There’s also a Patient & Family Guide to the CANMAT guidelines.

book cover: Psych Meds Made Simple by Ashley L. Peterson

Want to know more about psych meds and how they work? Psych Meds Made Simple is everything you didn’t realize you wanted to know about medications.

It’s published by MH@H Books and available on Amazon and Google Play.

15 thoughts on “Bipolar Disorder Treatment Guidelines”

  1. I am bipolar II and go the atypical/antidepressant route and I must say I am the most stable I have ever been. I did have to decrease my antidepressant because I had zero feelings.

  2. Wow… those lines are not used with me at all! I just take Klonopin and Lamectial, and I am well maintained. Sometimes Wellbutrin is added during the winter holidays. I’ve only taken lithium a few times without success.

  3. I was first diagnosed with Bipolar 1 in 2002, although I had been mistakenly diagnosed with MDD in my 20s. I’ve tried 37 different psych meds in my life! What has worked best for me has been lamotrigine and bupropion, and trazodone and lorazepam as needed. I have still had breakthrough mania every 5 to 6 years, but only when I’ve had 3 or more triggers. I had intensely bad side effects from lithium and atypical antipsychotics. My depressive episodes have lessened dramatically. But I was “scolded” recently for using lamotrigine rather than other meds, and told it’s not the right med for people with Bipolar 1. What would you say to that?

    1. I would say that whatever works is the right med for you. While lamotrigine may not be enough to prevent mania for most people, if it does the job for you then that’s great.

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