Electroconvulsive Therapies for Depression

If medications do not reduce the symptoms of depression, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be an option to explore. There are a lot of outdated beliefs about ECT, but here are the facts:

  • ECT can provide relief for people with severe depression who have not been able to feel better with other treatments.
  • ECT can be an effective treatment for depression.
  • ECT may cause some side effects, including confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. Usually these side effects are short term, but sometimes they can linger. Talk to your doctor and make sure you understand the potential benefits and risks of the treatment.

Some people believe that ECT is painful or that you can feel the electrical impulses. This is not true.

Before ECT begins, a patient is put under brief anesthesia and given a muscle relaxant. He or she sleeps through the treatment and does not consciously feel the electrical impulses.

Within 1 hour after the treatment session, which takes only a few minutes, the patient is awake and alert.

Alternative Brain Stimulation Therapies

Other more recently introduced types of brain stimulation therapies used to treat severe depression include repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).

In 2008, the FDA approved rTMS as a treatment for major depression for patients who have not responded to at least one antidepressant medication.

In 2005, the FDA approved VNS for use in treating depression in certain circumstances—if the illness has lasted 2 years or more, if it is severe or recurrent, and if the depression has not eased after trying at least four other treatments. VNS is less commonly used, and more research is needed to test its effectiveness.


Reference: National Institute of Mental Health

Last updated May 2017

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