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Electroconvulsive Therapy for Depression

NYU Langone psychiatrists sometimes use electroconvulsive therapy, also known as ECT, to treat people with severe depression who have not responded to other therapies.

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ECT involves sending an electric current through the brain to cause a controlled seizure. Experts do not entirely understand why the seizure is effective, but it’s thought that it eases the symptoms of depression by changing the brain’s chemistry.

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

It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete the procedure. 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 these ease over time in most people. 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 antidepressant medications, to prevent a relapse. Some people receive maintenance therapy, or “booster sessions,” of ECT.

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