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Electroconvulsive therapy: Sorting fact from fiction

If you’ve ever felt so hopeless that you were no longer able to get pleasure out of life or just plain feel yourself, you were probably suffering from depression. And if you didn’t seek treatment, you may still be battling its effects.

The fact is, depression is not something you will just snap out of. Fortunately, together with psychotherapy, drugs can often lift depression. But sometimes neither drugs nor counseling offer relief. What then?

A sound alternative

In spite of its poor reputation, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), commonly known as shock therapy, is a highly effective and quick-acting therapy for thousands of depressed people who don’t respond to standard treatment. It usually takes six or eight ECT treatments (about two to three sessions a week) to achieve lasting results; the series is followed by antidepressant use for about a year. For patients who can’t tolerate drugs or who are prone to frequent depression, maintenance ECT (one treatment every month or two) may be the answer.

The procedure explained

ECT is a controlled seizure. A small electrical current is sent to the brain for one or two seconds through electrodes attached to the head, producing a seizure that lasts no more than a minute. How can this relieve depression? Experts believe the seizure triggers favorable chemical and neurological changes in the brain. Popular images to the contrary, ECT is quite safe. It doesn’t cause brain damage, and because general anesthesia and muscle relaxants are administered beforehand, it is not painful.

Recovering from ECT

Recovery takes about an hour. Among the side effects are fatigue, nausea and achiness. Slight memory disruption is common: For a day or two after the treatment, a patient may have difficulty recalling the title of a recent movie or the name of an acquaintance, but will have no trouble remembering her own name or what day it is.