Managing bipolar disorder: pharmacologic options for treatment
Lithium has been the mainstay of treatment for decades, but several other classes of medication have recently been used with varying degrees of success.
Hayes et al12 conducted one of the most recent large studies to compare lithium with newer second-generation antipsychotics as maintenance monotherapy for bipolar disorder. The authors concluded that for monotherapy, lithium remains the best option. The time to failure (defined as the need to add a second drug to treat symptoms or the need to stop treatment) was approximately twice as long with lithium. This study adds to evidence for the use of lithium as a first-line drug, with antipsychotics as second-line or adjunct therapies.
Post4 reviewed the recommendations in recent clinical trials for first-, second-, and third-line options in treating bipolar disorder. The recommended first-choice therapy is continuation of the medication(s) used to treat the acute episode. For second-line options, data show that lithium once again is the superior initial monotherapy. Data also support valproate, quetiapine, and lamotrigine as second-line options for monotherapy, especially for patients who fail or have contraindications to lithium therapy. Third-line options include drug combinations of lithium or valproate with an antipsychotic.
Long-acting injectable medications
A major problem in the treatment of bipolar disorder is patient noncompliance with treatment. Patients may be given short-term intramuscular antipsychotic treatment for acute mania, but the use of LAI antipsychotics in psychiatry has been increasing during the last decade. Presently, several LAI antipsychotics are available (Table 7). Although several LAI antipsychotics are used for psychosis and schizophrenia, their use for bipolar disorder is off label. Presently, only Risperdal® Consta®, the LAI form of risperidone, has an FDA-approved indication for the treatment of bipolar disorder.13
Future research considerations
In their review, Severus et al14 do not make additional treatment recommendations but argue for the necessity of further clinical trials. The authors state that trials should enroll broader populations of patients with bipolar disorder (including patients distinguished by subtype and polarity). Ideally, these patients would be naïve to the treatments used in comparisons. The trials should also more frequently involve direct comparisons between medications. The high relapse rates among patients with bipolar disorder suggest that all current medications are less than ideal. Conducting further clinical trials of current medications, as described, would be beneficial, as well as continuing the development of newer treatments.
The treatment of patients with bipolar disorder requires careful monitoring, conducted best with continuation of care by a primary provider skilled in treatment or by referral to a specialist. For the treatment of acute mania, haloperidol, risperidone, and olanzapine show the best efficacy. If the manic patient has a previous diagnosis of bipolar disorder, his or her prior medication should be continued or restarted if needed. For patients who have bipolar disorder presenting with a depressive episode, antidepressant monotherapy should be avoided. Mixed therapy with fluoxetine and olanzapine or another selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor with quetiapine is recommended. For the maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder, the first-line treatment should be continuation of the medications used during the manic or depressive episode.
In case of treatment failure, lithium is the best first-line monotherapy, with valproate, quetiapine (for patients with depression-dominant polarity), and olanzapine (for patients with mania-dominant polarity) as viable alternatives. Second-line dual therapy for patients with resistant symptoms should consist of either lithium or valproate with a second-generation antipsychotic. LAI risperidone is available as an option for noncompliant patients. Patients with bipolar disorder continue to have high relapse rates, indicating that further clinical trials are needed to identify the best options for specific subtypes of patients, and that research into new treatment solutions should be continued.
Ian Ward, PA-C, is an assistant professor of clinical medicine in the Methodist University Physician Assistant Program in Fayetteville, NC
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- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.