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Last Updated on April 28, 2023

Editor’s Note: On January 28, 2011, an FDA panel recommended that electroconvulsive therapy devices experience extensive testing and ought to remain classified in the “high-risk” group.

Electroshock therapy, also known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), has a poor reputation cultivated by media portrayals, like in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But you might be surprised to learn that electroshock therapy is considered among the most effective treatments for depression.

Using Electroshock Therapy for Depression

Electroconvulsive therapy works 80 to 90 percent of the time for someone who is recently diagnosed with or has yet to be treated to 60 percent of the time.

In the simplest terms, electroconvulsive therapy includes applying an electrical shock to the brain that triggers a brief grand mal seizure (a seizure involving the entire body). This seizure apparently “resets” the brain, although physicians do not know just how. One theory maintains the seizure forces the brain to release chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that enhance overall brain cell function. An electroencephalogram, otherwise known as an EEG or brain wave evaluation, of a blue person prior to electroconvulsive therapy shows slow brain waves, while brain waves return to normal after being zapped, says Dr. Lewis.

ECT is used most commonly when an individual ‘s melancholy:

  • Does not respond to antidepressants or psychotherapy
  • Causes acute unwanted effects like sleeplessness, drastic weight change, suicidal or homicidal thoughts, or extreme feelings of hopelessness
  • Happens during pregnancy
  • Leads to psychosis (mental illness with distorted sense of reality) or mania (elevated mood with mental and physical hyperactivity)
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Performing Electroshock Therapy

Someone who has depression receives ECT while . Muscle relaxants are utilized to prevent the recipient from thrashing during the seizure. The seizure is much reduced or eliminated says Lewis.

Doctors implement a small quantity of electricity to the individual ‘s head for a couple of seconds to prompt the seizure, which lasts between 20 to 60 seconds. The patient typically wakes up a couple of minutes after physicians complete the session.

Until it’s discovered the patient has received as much gain as possible — a patient with melancholy will receive ECT in a string of sessions — about two to four times each week. The normal individual usually requires 6 to 12 sessions total.

Side Effects of Electroshock Therapy

The most prominent side effect of electroconvulsive therapy is temporary, short-term memory loss. However, in many instances memories will return to normal within half a year of treatment. “Some people claim there are still matters they can’t remember long after,” says Lewis. “The question then becomes: Is this due to ECT or due to melancholy?”

Other side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Muscle pains
  • Increased heartbeat or blood pressure
  • Headaches

Lewis advocates that patients bring a friend or family member to every session. “It’s always best they possess some family along to hear what’s being said,” he says.

Electroshock therapy should be merely one step in a person’s treatment for depression, warns Lewis. About 80 percent of people will relapse during the initial year unless they continue with some sort of follow up treatment like antidepressant drug or psychotherapy.

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