Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a non-invasive, often-effective treatment for severe depression. Although popular media often portrays ECT as cruel “shock therapy,” it is actually one of the safest, most effective methods of depression treatment.
Doctors generally recommend electroconvulsive therapy when depression proves resistant to other treatment methods, such as medication and psychotherapy. ECT is often safe for pregnant women, nursing mothers and individuals who are unable to take medication.
What is Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?
When it was first developed, ECT did look similar to the mediaÃ•s current portrayal of it. Patients received high doses of electricity without any anesthesia. This led to violent convulsions, memory loss and sometimes death. ECT has evolved significantly since its early days. People who undergo modern ECT donÃ•t normally convulse or experience any pain.
During electroconvulsive therapy, an electrical current passes through the brain creating a controlled, artificial brain seizure. Scientists believe that ECT alters the neurochemicals in the brain. After multiple ECT treatments, the cumulative effect of these alterations works to relieve depression.
What to Expect From ECT
Electroconvulsive therapy may be conducted at a hospital or an outpatient medical facility. Prior to the procedure, your doctor places an electrode on one or both sides of your forehead and you are given anesthesia to relax your muscles and prevent you from harming yourself during the seizure. Once youÃ•re asleep, the doctor induces a brief seizure that lasts approximately one minute. The seizure activity can be monitored in several ways. Afterwards, you are taken to the recovery room until the effects of the anesthesia wear off.
Most people receive anywhere from six to 12 ECT treatments over the course of a few weeks. Your treatments will likely become less and less frequent as your depression symptoms improve. Most patients experience a noticeable improvement after just a few electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments.
Side Effects of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)
Some of the most common side effects of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) include:
- Aching muscles
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Temporary confusion
- Temporary memory loss.
After your treatment, you may experience a period of confusion lasting for a few minutes up to a few hours. In rare cases, confusion may last for several days. You may also experience some memory loss, particularly regarding events that took place around the time of treatment. Memory loss generally improves within a few months and permanent memory problems are rare. Memory loss is less likely with unilateral ECT (electrodes are placed on only one side of the head), which is the most frequently used ECT treatment today.
ECT as a Depression Treatment
Electroconvulsive therapy is one of the most well-researched brain stimulation techniques available. Presently, medical researchers are looking into other brain stimulation techniques that offer the effectiveness of ECT without the undesirable side effects. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is the newest and most advanced of the brain stimulation therapies.
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Staff. (n.d.) Treatments for depression. Retrieved May 10, 2010, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Staff website: www.camh.net/About_Addiction_Mental_Health/Mental_Health_Information/ Depressive_Illness/dep_illness_treatments.html.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2008). Electroconvulsive therapy. Retrieved May 25, 2010, from the Mayo Clinic website: www.mayoclinic.com/health/electroconvulsive-therapy/MY00129.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2010). Treatment and drugs. Retrieved May 7, 2010, from the Mayo Clinic website: www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression/DS00175/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs.
National Institute of Mental Health Staff. (n.d.) Brain stimulation therapies. Retrieved May 25, 2010, from the National Institute of Mental Health website: www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/brain-stimulation-therapies/brain-stimulation-therapies.shtml.
Nemade, R. et al. (n.d.) Depression: Major depression & unipolar varieties. Retrieved May 5, 2010, from the MentalHealth.net website: www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=438&cn=5.