Frequently Asked Questions

What is ECT?

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT or shock treatment) is an extremely safe and effective medical treatment for certain psychiatric disorders. ECT has been used for over 60 years. In the United States, about 100,000 individuals are estimated to receive ECT each year.

Who should receive ECT?

ECT is most commonly given when patients have severe depressive illness, mania, or some forms of schizophrenia. Frequently, ECT is given when patients have not responded to other treatments, when other treatments appear to be less safe or difficult to tolerate, when patients have responded well to ECT in the past, or when psychiatric or medical considerations make it particularly important that patients recover quickly and fully.

What have patients said about ECT?

One survey found that following ECT most patients reported that it was no worse than going to the dentist, and many found ECT less stressful. Other research has shown that that the vast majority of patients report that their memory is improved following ECT and that if needed, they would receive ECT again. ECT is an extremely effective form of treatment. It is often safer and more effective than medications or no treatment at all. If you have any questions about ECT, please discuss them with your physician.

How is ECT given?

With this treatment, a small amount of electricity is applied to the scalp and this produces a seizure in the brain. The procedure is painless because the patient is asleep, under general anesthesia.

When the patient comes to the ECT treatment room, an intravenous line is started. Sensors for recording, EEG (elec­troencephalogram, a measure of brain activity) are placed on the head. Other sensors are placed on the chest for monitoring EKG (electrocardiogram). A cuff is wrapped around an arm for monitoring blood pressure. When every­thing is connected and in order, an anesthetic medication is injected through the intravenous line that will cause the patient to sleep for 5 to 10 minutes. Once the patient falls asleep, a muscle relaxant is injected. This prevents movement, and during the seizure there are only minimal contractions of the muscles.

When the patient is completely asleep and the muscles are well relaxed, the treatment is given. A brief electrical charge is applied to electrodes on the scalp. This stimulates the brain and produces the seizure that lasts for about a minute. Throughout the procedure, the patient receives oxygen through a mask. When the treatment is completed, the patient is taken to a recovery area and is monitored by trained staff. Usually within 30 to 60 minutes, the patient can leave the recovery area.

How many treatments are needed?

ECT is given as a course of treatments. The total number needed to successfully treat psychiatric disturbance varies from patient to patient. For depression, the typical range is from 6 to 12 treatments, but some patients may require fewer and some patients may require more treatments.

How safe is ECT?

Because of its strong safety record, ECT is often recommended for patients with serious medical conditions. ECT appears to have less risk of death or serious medical complications than a number of the medications used to treat psychiatric conditions.

What are the common side effects of ECT?

The patient will experience some confusion on awakening following, the treatment. This is partly due to the anesthesia and partly due to the treatment. The confusion typically clears within an hour. Some patients have headaches following the treatment. This is usually relieved by Tylenol or aspirin. Other side effects, such as nausea, last for a few hours at most and are relatively uncommon. In patients with heart disease, there is an increased risk of cardiac complications. Cardiac monitoring and other precautions, including the use of additional medications, if required, help to ensure a safe treatment.

ECT may result in memory loss. Two types of memory loss have been reported. The first involves rapid forgetting of new information. For example, shortly following the treatment, patients may have difficulty remembering conversations or things they have recently read. This type of memory loss is typically short-lived and has not been shown to persist for more than a few weeks following the completion of ECT. The second type of memory loss concerns events from the past. Some patients will have gaps in their memory for events that occurred in the weeks to months and, less commonly, years prior to the treatment course. This memory loss also typically reverses following the completion of ECT. However, like with any treatment, patients differ in the extent to which they experience side effects, and more extensive memory loss has been reported by a minority of individuals.

Many psychiatric illnesses result in impairments of attention and concentration. Consequently, when the psychiatric disturbance improves following ECT, there is often improvement in these aspects of thinking. Shortly following, ECT, most patients show improved scores on tests of intelligence, attention, and learning.

Does ECT change the structure or composition of the brain?

Brain imaging studies following ECT have shown no changes in the structure or composition of the brain. The amount of electricity used in ECT is so small that it cannot cause electrical injury.