Comorbidity in Bipolar Disorder: The Complexity of Diagnosis and Treatment

Medical comorbidities

Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and other endocrine disorders tend to occur more often in patients with BPD than in the general population.62,63 According to population-based studies, cardiovascular mortality is almost twice as high in patients with BPD, which may be related to higher rates of obesity.5,64 Mechanisms hypothesized to explain this finding include smoking, diet, sedentary lifestyle, and unrecognized risk factors (insulin resistance, inflammation, hypercortisolemia).65,66

Comorbid neurological disorders, including migraine headache, have also been reported at higher rates in patients with BPD, especially bipolar II disorder. The latter may represent a subtype of the disease.67


Given the substantial overlap between symptoms of BPD and other psychiatric conditions, an accurate cross-sectional assessment is inherently difficult to achieve. A careful longitudinal assessment that establishes a chronology of onset of different conditions, a symptom and functional profile between mood episodes, the course of illness, and response to treatment are essential for a more robust diagnosis.44 Furthermore, the inherent challenge in obtaining an accurate history from a bipolar patient—especially one with comorbidities—requires corroboration from family members.

Although clinical guidelines for BPD acknowledge the complexity of treating the illness, most have limited recommendations specific to the patient with comorbidities. This may reflect the limited nature of the clinical evidence in this field.68,69 The cost of diagnostic and therapeutic uncertainty, however, is calculated through the high cost of chronicity, with elevated rates of suicide, legal and interpersonal difficulties, and repeated hospitalizations.

As the field of neurobiology of bipolar and affective disorders advances, we hope to begin to refine our view of the comorbid interface. Forging the pathophysiological links between specific medical illnesses and BPD, including the use of clinical biomarkers to help refine the understanding of bipolar subtypes, may help clarify the pathophysiology of BPD itself. This will ultimately suggest new measures for secondary prevention and long-term treatments.4,70

Dr Sagman is staff psychiatrist, Toronto East General Hospital, Toronto, and associate vice-president, clinical research, Eli Lilly Canada Inc, and Dr Tohen is Distinguished Lilly Scholar for Neurosciences, Lilly Research Laboratories, Indianapolis. The authors report that they have no other conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.


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Comorbidity in Bipolar Disorder: The Complexity of Diagnosis and Treatment

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Psychiatric Times

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APA Reference
Sagman,, D. (2011). Comorbidity in Bipolar Disorder: The Complexity of Diagnosis and Treatment. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


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Last updated: 1 Jul 2011
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Jul 2011
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