Little known differences between bipolar depression and unipolar depression

12/08/10
In my practice I often see patients self referred or sent in by their general practitioner who tell me that he or she has Major Depressive Disorder. Problem is, medications and therapy have had little success so my expert advice is needed.

When evaluating a patient it is crucial not to miss the diagnosis of bipolar depression. A recent article in a Chilean medical journal (Rev Med Chili 2010 Jun) identifies suggestions of how a proper diagnosis can be achieved. This information resonates with my practical experience seeing patients through the years.

First it is important to use standardized diagnostic criteria such as the DSM-IV or ICD 10 manuals. Second it is important to check whether certain clinical features are present. These features tend to be less known to the general practitioner and population. These criteria include whether there are previous episodes of mood elevation. Mood elevation can include times when mood is either positively elevated as in euphoria or high energy that is distinct from other times, or it can be negatively elevated. An example of the latter would be “road rage”. One is driving and the person in front of him lingers a little too long at the stop sign and the drivers gets unusually angry and wants to punch the guy out. We all have heard of that happening.

Another lesser known criteria is current or past episodes of psychotic depression which are episodes of depression that are so severe and debilitating that a person has great difficulty getting out of bed in the morning and functioning.

Recurrent depressive disorder before the age of 25 and a strong family history of mood disorder and suicide are other red flags for Bipolar Disorder.

Finally there are the signs related to past antidepressant usage that can be valuable information in proper diagnosis. If a patient has had a lack of response or “wearing off” to well conducted antidepressant treatment, or an unusually fast response to antidepressants with features of elation these are all red flags of Bipolar Disorder.

Finally, it is important that the proper professionals are utilized in making the diagnosis. While it can be a starting place, it can not be adequately done by self-diagnoses through the internet!

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