Clinical depression strikes all kinds of people – race, age, or economics notwithstanding – and it impacts every facet of an individual’s day-to-day existence.
For someone in the midst of deep, long-term depression, antidepressants may not be a viable option, either because of ineffectiveness, intolerable side effects, or the patient’s aversion to drug therapy.
For those people, the answer could lie in a therapy that may sound a bit frightening but is, in fact, completely non-invasive. It’s called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), and it involves generating an electric current across the scalp and skull – without any physical contact.
A magnetic field transfers energy into a patient’s brain, activating specific areas painlessly and without surgery or sedation. TMS is applied to sections of the brain that regulate a person’s mood. It affects brain functions and chemical activity, usually resulting in dramatic improvements in depressed patients.
An independent trial by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that people treated with TMS were four times more likely to achieve remission of depression symptoms, compared to patients receiving “sham treatment,” the term that clinical trials use in the same way that “placebo” is used in drug trials.
What can you expect in a TMS treatment?
If you decide to undergo a TMS session you’ll be seated the entire time, and fully awake. You’ll be able to talk to the doctor during the treatment. Before you begin, you’ll remove any hair clips, earrings, glasses, and such. You may want to use earplugs or listen to music during treatment, which generally lasts about 35 minutes.
An electromagnetic coil will be placed against your scalp near your forehead. The coil delivers a magnetic pulse that stimulates nerve cells in the region of your brain involved in mood control and depression. In spite of how that may sound, those experiencing TMS typically report feeling absolutely no pain. The pulse has been known to stimulate regions of the brain that have decreased activity in people with depression.
Why is TMS effective?
Why or how TMS works is not completely understood – the stimulation seems to affect how the brain is working, resulting in a lessening of depression symptoms and the improvement of a person’s mood.
Is TMS the right choice for you?
If you have had difficulty tolerating the side effects of antidepressant medications, this could be your best bet. TMS doesn’t come burdened with the downsides of antidepressant medications – like weight gain, sexual dysfunction, nausea, dry mouth, or sedation. It’s generally well-tolerated, with headaches and mild scalp discomfort as the most common side effects.
The typical patient who will benefit from TMS:
Is in a long-term or recurrent episode of depression
Has attempted multiple depression medications but is still symptomatic (the average TMS patient has tried 2.5 different therapies before this treatment)
May be considering a complex, multi-drug regimen, but is concerned about side effects
Is highly motivated to get well
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Jack wrote for HealthCentral as an editor on vision care, skin care, and mental health.