ECT For Depression and Anxiety

Basics on ECT —A Safe Interventional Therapy

Doctors Treat Brain Disorders As Mysteries Remain
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ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy, is an alternative therapy for certain psychiatric illnesses that are not responding to traditional treatments.

Let's learn more about this therapy, including potential side effects, and what it's like to experience ECT.

What is ECT?

ECT is a safe procedure usually used to treat major depression that is resistant to typical therapies, like antidepressants and psychotherapy.

ECT works by sending an electric current through the brain, altering the chemicals in the brain related to mood. 

ECTs are given in safe environments - usually recovery rooms in hospitals where medical professionals and equipment are present. An anesthesiologist and an attending psychiatrist gives the treatments, along with ECT trained nurses.

A person is gently sedated, with an anesthetic, and relaxed so there is no pain. The ECT produces a type of seizure in the brain. The treatment lasts only a few minutes. Observation of the treatment might reveal a wiggling of the patient's toes.

Shortly after the treatment, the patient wakes up, is checked thoroughly by medical personnel, and is allowed to go back home or to the hospital. After an ECT, the patient may have a slight headache, some drowsiness and temporary confusion, but anything more serious is extremely rare.

It's important to note that ECT is not a cure.

Rather it's a method of buying precious time to find treatments which do work - for those individuals who are worsening or not responding to current treatment and/or medications.

What Does ECT Treat?

ECT is mostly used to treat major depression disorder, but it may also be used to treat other psychiatric illnesses, like mania or schizophrenia.

Can ECT Be Used To Treat Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are common psychiatric illnesses and include:

ECT may have a role in people who have an anxiety disorder that is not responding to traditional treatments and that is complicated by severe major depression. The concern of some psychiatrists is that while ECT may help with depressive symptoms, it could worsen anxiety symptoms — like worsening obsessional thought or panic attacks.

Who is a Candidate for ECT?

ECTs are for people who are not responding to medication and other treatment methods. The classic case of someone who is given ECT is a person with major depression disorder who does not respond to large doses of an antidepressant and psychotherapy. ECT is sometimes given in combination with other therapies in hopes that the combination will improve a person's symptoms more than ECT alone.

What are the Side Effects of ECT?

ECT can cause cognitive problems like memory loss, mostly of recent events.

They can also cause some temporary confusion. A doctor will commonly ask memory or orientation-related questions after a person undergoes ECT to assess their degree of cognitive loss, if any.

Rarely, ECT can cause problems with a person's heart rhythm. If you do have a heart condition, be sure to let your psychiatrist know first so you can be monitored appropriately.

It is important that patients are aware of this risk and all other potential risks and benefits of ECTs before consenting to treatment.

What Should I Do?

ECT is believed to be a safe intervention that can be very effective in alleviating distressing psychiatric symptoms. As with any intervention, procedure, or medication, please speak with your doctor about any concerns you have before undergoing ECT.


American Psychiatric Association. Electroconvulsive Therapy. Task Force Report 14. 

Bystritsky A. Treatment-resistant anxiety disorders. Molecular Psychiatry. 2006 11,805-14.

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