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Health Team

Advances in shock therapy helping patients with depression

Posted May 16, 2012

— Thanks to its portrayal on the big screen, shock therapy is often associated with two things: lightning and fear. 

In reality, shock therapy isn't nearly as dramatic or painful as movies make it appear. Advances in Electro Convulsive Therapy are helping patients battle severe depression more successfully than other medicines. 

One such patient is Jim Adkins, a stay-at-home dad who has battled severe depression for 16 years.

For some, shock therapy can relieve depression For some, shock therapy can relieve depression

Adkins, who's father suffered from depression until he committed suicide six years ago, said his depression has kept him from working for nearly three years. 

"I kind of went into a tailspin with that, and my depression definitely grew worse," Adkins said. "I was suicidal, I attempted suicide twice."

After his symptoms worsened and his antidepressant prescriptions no longer helped him from experiencing severe episodes, Adkins turned to ECT treatments at Duke University Hospital. 

Thanks to advances in the technology, Adkins' last resort turned into a success story. 

"The type of ECT we use now is much safer and more effective than what we used to use," Duke psychiatrist Richard Weiner said. 

By using general anesthesia and muscle relaxants, patients no longer have convulsions during treatment. Patients still have seizures when electricity is applied, but doctors say they only last about a minute. 

Weiner said the impact on the brain is similar to medications, but ECT treatments are more powerful. The first treatments require three sessions per week for six to 12 weeks, and then periodic maintenance sessions. 

"When it works, it brings someone out of an episode of depression where the individual is pretty much incapacitated," Weiner said. 

Adkins said ECT treatments have helped him get through the darkest times of his depression, even helping him get past suicidal thoughts. 

"It hasn't cured me, but it has done what medication hasn't been able to do," he said. 

Doctors are generally very selective when choosing patients for ECT treatments. They look for patients who have stopped responding to medications or may be a danger to themselves. 

Side effects of the treatments include nausea and headache.

5 Comments

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  • mvnbird May 21, 10:27 a.m.

    This procedure is from the dark ages. Please read all you can about it. It actually kills brain cells and can cause brain lesions. It directly affects the memory part of the brain, and it's not just short-term memory that's affected. I have known too many people who have had ECT and the results were horrifying.

  • dholden May 18, 9:37 a.m.

    Stay at home dad with severe depression? Maybe mom should look at other options for the kids. We have seen this turn bad too many times before with kids being cared for by people that claim to be severely depressed.

  • bethlockamy May 17, 3:46 p.m.

    ECT was a God send for me AND my family. It brought me out of a very dark place into a position where my doctor could treat me with more conventional medications. EVERY Depressive patient is different. I would highly recommend this treatment, but only to those who's doctors think it is wise for them.

  • TriangleMommy May 17, 12:38 p.m.

    VNS therapy for Depression isn't FDA approved. (only approved for Epilepsy, for which it does wonders)
    As for ECT therapy for severe depression, I've seen its effects on a family member. It wasn't pretty. It took away my mother's short term memory. It was horrible. That, and the treatments did not help. It was hard for her to endure. I've also seen those I'm not related to go through this with the same side effects. Major memory problems - and no major benefit to their depression to show for it.
    NOT WORTH the trouble!

  • ohmygosh May 17, 9:24 a.m.

    Putting someone under general anesthetic 18-36 times seems quite risky. They should instead try ketamine or vagus nerve stimulation. They still have no idea how ECT supposedly works.