Bipolar Disorder Test: A Guide to Diagnosis

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Washington, DO, MPH

Doctors will use several tests to diagnose bipolar disorder, such as mental health evaluations, symptom surveys or questionnaires, and physical exams. If your doctor suspects you might have bipolar disorder, they may refer you to a psychiatrist or mental health professional for diagnosis.

Talk with a doctor if you have questions about bipolar disorder testing.

This article discusses how doctors test for bipolar disorder, bipolar disorder diagnostic criteria, and what to do next.

How do doctors test for bipolar disorder?

A young adult speaks with a clinician in a white coat.
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Typically, you go through multiple tests to diagnose bipolar disorder and rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.

Physical exam and medical history

Before requesting further tests, doctors will ask about your symptoms and medical history.

Sometimes, a doctor will conduct a small psychological evaluation during your first appointment. For example, they may ask about your mood and lifestyle habits.

They may also perform a physical exam or order medical tests to rule out conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as thyroid conditions. Examples of physical tests include:

  • blood tests
  • urine tests
  • imaging scans

Screening tests

A standard screening test for bipolar disorder is the Mood Disorder Questionnaire (MDQ). It is a brief list of questions to identify symptoms of manic or depressive episodes.

The MDQ also includes questions about what symptoms you experience and how much they affect your life.

However, the MDQ is not an official diagnostic tool. It is not a substitute for a complete medical evaluation and cannot confirm bipolar disorder. Only a doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis.

Research suggests the MDQ may not be reliable. A 2019 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source reported that people who scored positive on the MDQ were as likely to have borderline personality disorder as they were to have bipolar disorder.

Still, you can use the MDQ as a starting point to help you identify your symptoms and know when to contact a doctor.

Mental health evaluation

After taking a screening test or a doctor ruling out another condition, the next step is to talk with a mental health professional. This can be a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker with experience in diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder.

The mental health professional can perform a mental health evaluation, which involves more detailed questions about your:

  • symptoms and symptom history: such as when they started and how they impact your life
  • medical history: includes previous or current mental health concerns
  • family medical history; includes whether they have a history of mental health conditions
  • current medications or treatments: such as whether you use over-the-counter or prescription medications or therapies

Writing this information down before your appointments can be helpful in ensuring you mention all the key points.

Healthcare professionals can then compare the information you provide against the official diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder

Mental health professionals use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) to diagnose bipolar disorder.

The criteria for a bipolar disorder diagnosis depends on which of the four bipolar disorder types you experience.

Bipolar I disorder

Bipolar I disorder is when you experience episodes of mania that last at least a week Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source . Some people also experience depressive episodes, but not everyone with bipolar I disorder does.

Some of the criteria for bipolar I diagnosis include:

  • having experienced at least one manic episode of 7 days or more
  • having mood shifts that are severe enough to impair daily function or require hospitalization to prevent harm
  • experiencing three or more of the following symptoms during an episode:
    • increased self-esteem
    • decreased need for sleep
    • increased talkativeness
    • racing thoughts
    • increased distraction
    • increased goal-oriented activity
    • increased involvement in pleasurable activities that may have negative consequences, such as uncontrolled spending or impulsive investments

Bipolar II disorder

Bipolar II disorder is characterized by depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes. Hypomanic episodes or hypomania are periods of excess energy, elevated mood, and insomnia.

Some of the main criteria for diagnosing bipolar II disorder include Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source :

  • having experienced at least one major depressive episode and one hypomanic episode
  • not having had a manic episode
  • having frequent shifts between depressive and hypomanic symptoms

Cyclothymic disorder or cyclothymia

Cyclothymic is a form of bipolar disorder in which you have mild to moderate hypomania and depression symptoms.

The diagnostic criteria of cyclothymic disorder include Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source :

  • having hypomania and depression symptoms for the past two years
  • not having had a stable mood for more than 2 months consecutively
  • having symptoms that significantly affect your daily life

Read more about cyclothymia, including its diagnosis, causes, and treatment.

Unspecified bipolar disorder

Unspecified bipolar disorder refers to when your symptoms don’t meet the criteria for other bipolar disorder subtypes but still cause medically significant mood changes.

Questions during diagnosis

When pursuing a bipolar disorder diagnosis, think about what questions and specific concerns you’d like to discuss with your medical team. It may help to take a list of these topics to your appointments.

Questions you may want to ask your doctors include:

  • What type of bipolar disorder do I have?
  • Can you explain all of the possible treatment options? How do we decide the best one for me?
  • What are the risks and side effects of each treatment?
  • What is the most effective way to manage my symptoms?
  • Are there any lifestyle approaches that may be helpful?
  • How soon can I expect to see an improvement in symptoms?
  • What is my current outlook?
  • Where can I find additional information and support?
  • When should I contact you for help?

Next steps after a bipolar disorder diagnosis

Your medical team will discuss the best treatment plan for you after you’ve received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Finding the best treatment plan can take trial and error or a combination of therapies. However, long-term, tailored treatment can improve your quality of life and help you manage bipolar disorder.

If you have used an online screening test for bipolar disorder and scored highly, be sure to check in with a doctor for accurate medical testing.

Talk with a doctor if you have other questions about bipolar disorder or feel you need further support.

Learn more about bipolar disorder treatment options.

Summary

Your medical team will use information from various tests to help diagnose bipolar disorder. This can include physical exams to rule out other conditions, screening tests, and mental health evaluations.

Only a doctor can confirm bipolar disorder, so always check in with a medical professional if you suspect you may have a mental health condition.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
Last Review Date: 2024 Jun 25
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