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Electroconvulsive therapy

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read
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Electroconvulsive therapy (also known as ECT) is a treatment for certain types of severe mental illnesses that have not improved with all other treatment options. ECT is the process of passing an electrical current through the brain and stimulating a controlled seizure by placing an electrode on one side of the temple area of the head or an electrode on each side of the head. Before the electrical current that lasts between 6 - 12 seconds is delivered, the person is given a general anesthetic and muscle relaxant.

The treatment is normally done two times a week for a maximum of twelve times; however, it is stopped as soon as a response to the treatment is seen. How ECT works is not fully understood, but it is thought that it changes the levels of certain chemicals in the brain.

ECT sounds scary

ECT does have bad associations, partly due to its early use as a treatment that started in the 1930s. During this time, it was performed without anesthesia or muscle relaxants and was associated with occurrences of significant injury. It was also portrayed dramatically in some movies, such as 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'

There are still risks associated with undergoing ECT, including the risks of going under general anesthetic, the risk of short-term or long-term memory loss, and the small risk that the seizure could become prolonged or cause a blood pressure drop or an abnormal heart rhythm. The risk of death from ECT is the same as that for going under a general anesthetic.

Due to the risks, ECT is used as a last resort treatment and is only seen as a possible effective treatment option for severe or life-threatening depression, catatonia, or for severe or prolonged mania.

When should I see my doctor?

Due to the potential risks of undergoing ECT, the decision to have ECT is only made by an experienced psychiatrist along with the patient, if they are able to do so, and the team involved in their care. It is only used when the risk of not treating with ECT outweighs the risks associated with performing ECT.

What will my doctor do?

Prior to ECT, the doctor will want to review the person's medical and mental health history, current symptoms, diagnosis, and the patient's understanding of ECT and its risks. A physical health assessment will also need to be done, such as blood pressure, ECG, and some blood tests. If there is any history of heart problems, a heart specialist may also be asked to do an assessment on the person prior to ECT. ECT takes a lot of planning, and will not be a decision made lightly or quickly.

Fitnote

You are not fit for work if you are undergoing electroconvulsive therapy treatment.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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