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Ask the Experts

‘Shock Therapy’ for Depression?

by Wellness Letter  

Q. Is “shock therapy” still used to treat depression and other mood disorders?

A. If antidepressants and psychotherapy don’t work, another option is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Though the name might sound frightening—especially because it was once known as “shock therapy”—ECT is a safe and effective method to treat major depressive disorder, even for people 85 and older. It’s also used for patients with severe depression at high risk for suicide since it can work more quickly than antidepressants. Some studies suggest that it’s effective in up to 80 percent of older patients.

ECT is administered through electrodes placed over the scalp through which a small electrical current is applied while the person is under general anesthesia. The current induces a generalized seizure. Doctors don’t know exactly how ECT helps with depression, but they think its benefit comes from triggering the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

ECT is typically administered three times a week. Most patients see symptom improvement after six to 12 treatments, although some may improve in just three sessions. Side effects include confusion and memory loss, which are usually temporary. Your doctor may recommend occasional maintenance therapy after successful treatment. Many health insurance plans and Medicare cover the procedure.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see First Steps for Treating Depression.