Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure that passes a small electric current through your brain to treat depression and other debilitating behavioral health illnesses. In recent years extensive research around ECT has made it a safe and effective treatment to significantly reduce or even reverse symptoms such as severe depression, suicidal thoughts, mania and catatonia.
You may be a candidate for ECT if medication or other treatments have not worked. ECT is a pain-free procedure done in a hospital setting while you are under general anesthesia. You will be receive treatments every week for approximately six to 12 weeks.
ECT takes about five to 10 minutes, with added time for preparation and recovery. For your first treatment, you will probably be admitted to the hospital. You may be able to have future treatments on as an outpatient.
Preparing for ECT
- Before ECT, you receive medicine to relax you (muscle relaxant). You also receive a short-acting anesthetic to prevent you from feeling pain.
- The highly trained medical team places electrodes on your scalp to monitor your brain activity and deliver the electric current.
How ECT Works
While you are under anesthesia, a small amount of electric current is delivered to your head to cause seizure activity in your brain. This process lasts for about 40 seconds.
You receive medicine to prevent the seizure from spreading throughout your body. As a result, your hands or feet move only slightly during the procedure.
Doctors believe that the seizure activity may help the brain “rewire” itself, which can relieve symptoms.
Several minutes after the treatment, you wake up. The healthcare team takes you to a recovery area and monitors you closely. You do not remember the treatment. When you have recovered, you can go home.
Although ECT is generally safe, risks and side effects may include:
- Confusion — Immediately after an ECT treatment, you may have a brief period of confusion that can last a few minutes or, rarely, longer.
- Memory loss — ECT can affect memory in several ways. The most frequent memory loss is not remembering events that occurred before treatment began. Most people’s memory problems improve within a couple of months.
- Physical side effects — You may experience nausea, vomiting, headache, jaw pain, muscle ache or muscle spasms after ECT. You can usually take a medication to prevent these side effects from occurring in the future.
- Medical complications — As with any medical procedure, ECT can have medical complications. During ECT, your heart rate and blood pressure increase. In rare cases, this can cause brief abnormalities in heart rhythm. If you have heart problems, ECT may pose a greater risk.