Background: Although genetic and biological factors are crucial in the pathophysiology of bipolar disorder, the importance of psychosocial and familial factors in triggering or mitigating relapses warrants the implementation of psychotherapeutic interventions. The authors review and criticize the role of family intervention in bipolar disorder. Methods: The main computerized databases (Medline, Psychological Abstracts, Current Contents) have been searched for the terms ‘family intervention’, ‘family management’, ‘family therapy’, ‘psychotherapy’, ‘psychoeducation’ and ‘bipolar disorder’. Results: Some studies have associated high expressed emotion in relatives and poorer outcome in bipolar disorder. Studies on families of bipolar patients seem to support that family intervention as adjunctive therapy to pharmacological treatment may reduce the number of relapses and hospitalizations, improving familial, occupational and social functioning. However, controlled studies are scarce and most of them have a great number of methodological pitfalls such as small sample size, uncontrolled pharmacological treatment, absence of long follow-up and biased populations, among others. Conclusions: Both bipolar patients and their relatives could benefit from family intervention as adjunctive treatment to pharmacotherapy. Nevertheless, it would be necessary to design further investigations avoiding some of the limitations listed above, and controlling additionally for psychopathology in family members, and the influence of life events. It would be important to distinguish between causes and effects, studying which factors are involved in family attitudes and determining whether the interactive patterns are variable or stable according to the clinical state of the patient. Finally, it would be useful to design viable, effective and measurable interventions for the accurate delimitation of the role of family intervention in the treatment of bipolar disorder.

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