Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) sends an electronic current through the brain. This current causes brief seizure activity. This causes changes in brain chemistry. ECT can reduce symptoms associated several mental health conditions.
ECT is commonly used to treat:
In some cases, ECT may also be used for other mental or neurological conditions.
Your doctor will review potential problems like:
Rare complications include:
Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:
Prior to the procedure, your doctor will:
You may feel confused after ECT. Arrange for someone to drive you home from the hospital. Also, arrange for someone to help you at home.
General anesthesia will be used. You will be asleep during the treatment and will not feel any pain.
You will be connected to a machine that will monitor your vital signs and brain activity. Next, you will receive general anesthesia and a medication to keep your muscles relaxed during the procedure.
After you are asleep, you will receive oxygen through a mask on your face. A mouth guard may also be placed to protect your tongue and teeth from injury. Next, electrodes will be positioned on your head. These electrodes will be connected to a machine that will deliver an electric current to your brain. This will cause seizure activity. After the shock is given, the muscles that have not been affected by the medication will contract for a few seconds. Next, your body will twitch, which can last up to a minute.
You will be taken to a recovery room where your vital signs will be monitored. You will wake up in 10-15 minutes. You may feel confused. This confusion can last minutes, hours, or sometimes longer.
You will not feel any pain during the procedure. After ECT, you may have a headache and muscle aches or soreness.
When you are fully awake, you will be given something to eat and drink. In most cases, you will be able to go home the day of the procedure.
You should arrange for help at home in case thinking and memory problems persist.
You will need to schedule an appointment for another ECT treatment. In most cases, you will need to have 2-3 treatments per week, for many weeks. You will need to take medication, such as antidepressants, and continue with therapy to prevent a relapse.
You may also need maintenance ECT to further prevent a relapse. Your doctor will help determine the right plan for you. This will depend on how you are progressing.
It is important to monitor your recovery. Alert your doctor to any problems. If any of the following occur, call your doctor:
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Depression: How electroconvulsive therapy works. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/depression/treatment/how-electroconvulsive-therapy-works.html. Updated September 2012. Accessed May 6, 2016.
Electroconvulsive therapy. Mental Health America website. Available at: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/ect. Accessed May 6, 2016.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). El Camino Hospital website. Available at: http://www.elcaminohospital.org/Programs_and_Services/Behavioral_Health/Electroconvulsive_Therapy. Accessed May 6, 2016.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depression. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 21, 2016. Accessed May 6, 2016.
Kellner CH, Greenberg RM, Murrough JW, et al. ECT in treatment-resistant depression. Am J Psychiatry. 2012;169(12):1238-1244.
5/13/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Semkovska M, McLoughlin DM. Objective cognitive performance associated with electroconvulsive therapy for depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Biol Psychiatry. 2010;68(6):568-577.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.