How Electroconvulsive Therapy Works Family Doctor Logo

How does ECT work?

It is believed that the seizure in the brain caused by ECT influences many chemicals in the brain. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, deliver messages from one brain cell to another. ECT's effects on these chemicals can make the brain cells work better. A person's mood will improve when his or her brain cells and chemical messengers work better.

What steps are taken to prepare a person for ECT treatment?

First, a doctor will perform a physical exam to make sure you're physically able to handle the treatment. If you are, you will meet with an anesthesiologist, a doctor who specializes in giving anesthesia. Anesthesia is medicine used to put you in a sleep-like state so that you don't feel any pain or discomfort. The anesthesiologist will examine your heart and lungs to see if it is safe for you to have anesthesia. You may need to have some blood tests and an electrocardiogram (a test showing the rhythm of your heart) before your first ECT treatment.

How are the ECT treatments given?

ECT may be given during a hospital stay, or a person can go to a hospital just for the treatment and then go home. ECT is usually given 3 times a week. Usually 6 to 12 treatments are needed to relieve depression but occasionally as many as 20 can be given. Treatment is given by a psychiatrist.

Before each treatment, an intravenous (IV) line will be started so medicine can be put directly into your blood. You will be given an anesthetic (medicine to put you into a sleep-like state) and a medicine to relax your muscles. Your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing will be watched closely. After you are asleep, an electrical shock will be applied to your head. The shock will last only 1 or 2 seconds and will make your brain have a seizure. The seizure's effect on your body is controlled by the anesthetic and muscle-relaxing medicines. These medicines prevent your body from moving during the seizure.

You will wake up within 5 to 10 minutes after the treatment and will be taken to a recovery room to be watched. When you are fully awake, you can eat and drink, get dressed and return to your hospital room or go home.

What are some side effects of ECT?

Side effects may result from the anesthesia, the ECT treatment or both. Common side effects include temporary short-term memory loss, confusion, nausea, muscle aches and headache. Some people may have longer-lasting problems with memory after ECT. Sometimes a person's blood pressure or heart rhythm changes. If these changes occur, they are carefully watched during the ECT treatments and are immediately treated.

What happens after all of the ECT treatments are done?

After you have finished all of your ECT treatment, your depression is likely to improve and you will probably be started on an antidepressant medicine. You may also be given less frequent ECT treatments. It is important for you to keep taking your prescribed medicine the way your doctor suggests so that you won't become depressed again.

This content has been supported by Forest Laboratories Inc.