Bipolar Comorbidity-Conditions That Can Occur Alongside Bipolar Disorder
It was six years ago this October when I was officially 'welcomed' into the world of bipolar disorder. That isn't to say that life was all peachy keen before then, but it took that long before doctors could settle on exactly what was going in in that wide open space I call my brain. There were other reasons it took this long to get treatment for bipolar, but a big one was that there were so many other things going on that doctors had a hard time pinning down a diagnosis. This is very common for those of us who have this disorder, since it is very easily misdiagnosed or missed. One thing I didn't know before was that you can actually have the other things my doctors thought I had instead of bipolar at the same time as bipolar. Confused yet? Don't worry, you're not alone. It's called 'comorbidity'-the event of two disorders occurring alongside each other that are not necessarily related. bipolar.about.com/od/relateddisorders/Related_Disorders.htm
Sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what conditions a person has because many mental disorders 'share symptoms'. For instance, most people with bipolar or unipolar depression have difficulty concentrating sometimes, even if they don't specifically have attention-defiict disorders. Anxiety is also extremely common among people with bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) , even if they don't have any specific 'anxiety' diagnosis. I'm sure this sounds about as clear as mud, but my point is that so many disorders that aren't necessarily related can have similar symptoms or can feed off of each other when they occur at the same time. This is especially true when you consider that disorders like OCD occur 'on a spectrum', so it's a matter of intensity or frequency in a particular individual. Here are some examples of conditions that can occur alongside bipolar disorder and make treatment even more difficult than it already is.
Migraines. It's not entirely clear why people who have migraines also have depressive disorders (and vice versa), but some studies have shown that the two illnesses may have a common cause. This doesn't mean that everyone with bipolar with automatically get migraines (thank God, I don't...), but it does mean that the two might be related in ways not previously thought. Here's an article about this, with some statistics and clinical language: http://headaches.about.com/od/comorbidconditions/a/BipolarMx.htm
Substance Abuse problems. Maybe the two aren't technically related-the jury's still out on that one-, it is significant that a high percentage of people with bipolar disorder also have substance abuse problems. Depending on where you look, the numbers are between 30 and 60% of people with bipolar having addiction problems. If you think about it, it kind of makes sense, since some people will drink or whatnot in an effort to 'self-medicate'. However, this isn't always the case, as this article will tell you: bipolar.about.com/od/alcoholsubstanceabuse/a/aa010514a.htm . Both bipolar and substance abuse problems have a genetic component, which lends credence to the 'common cause but not necessarily related' theory. In my generation alone, three out of four kids have issues with bipolar (I do), and two of four have had substance abuse problems that required treatment (I don't). The same is pretty much true of my dad's generation.
Anxiety Disorders. Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) have been widely reported to occur alongside bipolar disorder, although there is more research needed in this area. It's not at all uncommon for someone with bipolar to experience panic attacks-some studies show up to 32%. If you've never had a panic attack, let me just put it this way-you literally feel like you're having a heart attack. Your heart pounds, you hyperventilate, sometimes you black out...scary stuff, and sadly common. Another common comorbid anxiety condition is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), although it's not really certain whether there is a common component or whether it's just coincidence that people with bipolar have also experienced traumatic events such as abuse, rape, etc.
Of course, there is still a lot more doctors are trying to learn about all of these conditions. As more research is being done, we will probably hear more information about whether conditions like these are related to bipolar or are conicidental. For now, it's important for patients to have this sort of information so that they can ask their doctors if there is anything more that can be done to help them.