Bipolar disorder and aggression

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In clinical practice, overt aggressive behaviour is frequently observed in patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It can be dangerous and complicates patient care. Nevertheless, it has not been adequately studied as a phenomenon that is separate from other symptoms such as agitation. The aim of this review is to provide information on the prevalence, clinical context, and clinical management of aggression in patients with bipolar disorder.


MEDLINE and PsycInfo data bases were searched for articles published between 1966 and November 2008 using the combination of key words ‘aggression’ or ‘violence’ with ‘bipolar disorder’. For the treatment searches, generic names of mood stabilisers and antipsychotics were used in combination with key words ‘bipolar disorder’ and ‘aggression’. No language constraint was applied. Articles dealing with children and adolescents were not included.


Acutely ill hospitalised bipolar patients have a higher risk for aggression than other inpatients. In a population survey, the prevalence of aggressive behaviour after age 15 years was 0.66% in persons without lifetime psychiatric disorder, but 25.34% in bipolar I disorder. Comorbidity with personality disorders and substance use disorders is frequent, and it elevates the risk of aggression in bipolar patients. Impulsive aggression appears to be the most frequent subtype observed in bipolar patients. Clinical management of aggression combines pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches.


A major problem with the evidence is that aggression is frequently reported only as one of the items contributing to the total score on a scale or a subscale. This makes it impossible to ascertain specifically aggressive behaviour. Large controlled head-to-head randomised controlled studies comparing treatments for aggressive behaviour in bipolar disorder are not yet available. There is some evidence favouring divalproex, but it is not particularly strong. We do not know if there are any efficacy differences among antipsychotics for this indication.

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