Research Shows Electroconvulsive Therapy is Safe for Treating Patients with Depression

Electroconvulsive therapy or ECT is a type of shock therapy that delivers a small electric pulse to the brain. Although it is unknown exactly how effects are produced, it is believed that ECT increases levels of dopamine and serotonin and promotes the release of endorphins. It is said to work faster than mood-elevating drugs and can be more effective on some patients.

Read on to find out more about ECT and the recent study related to its safety.

What is ECT?

ECT works by sending an electric pulse to the brain that lasts one to two seconds. It occurs when the individual is under general anesthesia. It causes brain cells to fire in unison, producing a brief seizure. However, the only evidence of the seizure is apparent in the brain wave activity that shows up on a specialized monitor.

Experts are not sure exactly how ECT works in the body, but it is believed to cause an increase in serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that play a key role in depression. It also releases mood-elevating endorphins. Antidepressant drugs produce a similar result but can take several weeks to work.

ECT treatments can occur on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Patients typically undergo treatment three times a week for a total of six to twelve treatments. The patient’s health is reviewed during, before, and after therapy to determine how they react and if more treatment is necessary.

ECT Deemed Safe Despite Stigma

It is easy to see why people may be uneasy undergoing ECT. There has long been a stigma attached to what is commonly known as “shock therapy,” and the idea of treatment causing any kind of seizure in the body may be unsettling. However, recent studies have shown that ECT is safe and effective.

The latest review was published in Lancet Psychiatry, a well-respected medical journal. It examined the records of over 10,000 patients who had been hospitalized for depression for at least three days.

Researchers then compared the risk of hospitalization or death in patients that underwent ECT and those that did not. 5,008 patients that underwent an average of eight ECT sessions a week were reviewed.

Findings revealed that patients that used ECT were not at an increased risk for hospitalization or death and the risk of suicide decreased. Scientists concluded that the benefits of therapy outweighed the risks.

Although ECT is considered to be safe, it can produce side effects, especially in earlier sessions. These include:

● Jaw ache

● Headache

● Temporary anxiety and confusion

● Fatigue

● Muscle stiffness

● Hallucinations

● Shakiness

● Nausea

Complications are rare and are usually not life-threatening. ECT may also not be suitable for patients with certain existing medical conditions, including heart, brain, or respiratory issues. Discuss these concerns with your psychiatrist or anesthesiologist.

When is ECT Recommended?

ECT is recommended for patients who have not seen an improvement after using medication. However, it is not meant to be a regular or indefinite treatment. If patients are not experiencing mood-elevating results after the normal 6-to-12-week period, another type of therapy may be recommended.

Other Brain Stimulation Treatments

ECT is not the only brain stimulation treatment being used to treat depression. Here are some others to consider.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: This type of therapy uses rapidly alternating magnetic fields to stimulate specific brain areas. Unlike ECT, it does not produce a seizure, and patients do not require anesthesia when being treated. It is typically administered four or five times a week for a four-to-six-week period. It may produce mild side effects like headaches and muscle cramps, and pain at the stimulation site.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation: This therapy was originally developed to treat seizures, but it can also be used to treat depression. It involves implanting an electric pulse generator under the skin in the patient’s chest. It provides electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve in the patient’s neck that may lead to an increase in serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.


Shock therapy may seem like an old-fashioned concept, but with recent studies, so much more is known about the beneficial results that can mean targeted treatments bring it into the 21st century. Although some may be uneasy with seizure-producing tactics, studies have shown that ECT is a safe and effective method for overcoming depression. Would you be willing to incorporate it into your treatment routine? Consult your doctor for more information.




Dr. Alddo Molinar is an anesthesiologist, based in Martins Ferry, OH, who received his medical degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.

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Alddo Molinar

Alddo Molinar

Dr. Alddo Molinar is an anesthesiologist, based in Martins Ferry, OH, who received his medical degree from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.

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