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Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

What is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)?

In electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) a controlled electric current is passed through the brain, producing a very brief seizure. Used mainly to treat severe depression, ECT creates some of the same changes that medicines do in people with depression. It is often used when medicine has not been effective.

ECT is usually done in a hospital and can be done on an outpatient basis under the supervision of a psychiatrist.

When is it used?

ECT is used for people with severe forms of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder when other forms of treatment such as psychotherapy or medicines:

  • have not worked
  • would take too long (as when someone is suicidal)
  • have had too many side effects

ECT is also sometimes used when people hear voices or have delusions.

How does ECT work?

No one knows exactly how ECT works. What is known is that the brain is made up of cells that communicate with each other through both chemical and electrical signals. The effects of ECT are thought to cause the regions of the brain that control emotions and thoughts to return to a more stable condition.

What are my rights as I consider ECT?

Before you receive ECT, you and your healthcare provider need to discuss the planned treatment.

You should ask what other treatments are available to treat your condition, and the benefits and risks these procedures may have.

Ask questions about how many treatments are planned, what will be done to you during the procedure, and how will you be kept informed of progress as the treatment continues.

You may withdraw your decision to have ECT at any time.

How do I prepare for the procedure?

Your healthcare provider will order lab tests to make sure you have no physical problems that would keep you from having ECT.

Your provider will tell you when to stop drinking or eating before your procedure and whether you should change your medicine for the day. An intravenous (IV) line will be started so medicines can be put directly into a vein. You will be given a general anesthetic to put you to sleep and medicine to relax your muscles.

What happens during the procedure?

Your heart rhythms will be monitored. You will have a blood pressure cuff on one arm, and a device on one finger to measure the oxygen level in your blood. You will be given medicine to put you to sleep and keep your muscles relaxed during the treatment. After you are asleep, electrodes are applied to one or both temples. A controlled electric pulse is delivered to the electrodes, which causes a generalized seizure in your brain. Because you are asleep and your muscles are relaxed, you should feel no pain and will not be injured.

What happens after the procedure?

You will be watched carefully until you wake up from the procedure. Your blood pressure and heart rhythm will be checked. When you are awake, you will be told when you can have food and medicine and when you can resume normal activities. If the ECT was done on an outpatient basis, you will be ready to go home in a few hours.

You may have 2 or 3 ECT sessions a week and from 8 to 12 sessions over a 3-to-6-week period. Some people are on a maintenance schedule of one ECT treatment per month.

What are the benefits and risks of ECT?

About 80% of depressed people who have ECT get better after a full course of treatment. ECT has worked for people who do not respond to other forms of treatment. You and your provider should discuss the benefits of this treatment as part of your treatment plan.

Any medical procedure has a certain amount of risk. Risks from ECT include:

  • short-term memory loss that may take weeks to go away
  • rarely, irregular heart rates and rhythms
  • very rarely, death due to the use of a general anesthetic

The most common side effects of ECT are headaches, muscle aches, or soreness. These usually occur in the first few hours after the procedure. Some people have a period of confusion that may last for a few hours but is later forgotten. Some people cannot remember at all what took place right before the treatment.

When should I call the healthcare provider?

If you have questions or concerns after your procedure, contact your provider.

Written by Ginger Cohen, MS, RN, FACHE, and Naakesh A. Dewan, MD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-08-26
Last reviewed: 2010-06-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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