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Electroconvulsive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder

NYU Langone psychiatrists sometimes use electroconvulsive therapy, also known as ECT, to treat people with bipolar disorder that does not respond to other types of treatment, such as therapy and medications.

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ECT involves sending an electric current through the brain to cause a controlled seizure. It isn’t entirely understood why the seizure is effective, but it’s thought that it eases the symptoms of bipolar disorder by changing the brain’s chemistry.

Electroconvulsive therapy is performed in the hospital. Before the procedure, you are given general anesthesia and a muscle relaxant. A doctor places two or three small electrodes on your scalp using a material similar to a sticker. These electrodes are connected to a machine that delivers a low electric current, which causes a controlled seizure that lasts about 20 to 60 seconds.

The procedure takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Afterward, you are taken to a recovery room, where a healthcare professional monitors your vital signs. When you wake up, you may feel confused and have a headache or muscle aches or soreness. An over-the-counter pain reliever can lessen any discomfort.

Other side effects, such as nausea, usually last for only a few hours. Memory lapses may also occur in some people after this therapy, although for most people they ease over time. Often, you can go home the day of the procedure.

Electroconvulsive therapy typically involves 6 to 12 treatments administered 2 or 3 times a week. After treatment, you still need to take medication, such as antidepressants, to prevent a relapse. Some people receive maintenance therapy, or “booster sessions,” of ECT.

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