Learn more about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), why it’s used and what you can expect during treatment.

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In what circumstances is ECT used?

ECT can offer life-changing treatment for people with severe depression and psychotic illness who haven’t improved with medications or other treatments. ECT is also effective in treating people with suicidal thoughts or behaviors because it can offer relief much faster than other treatments. Antidepressants can take months to have an effect, while ECT can have an effect within the first week of treatment.

How does ECT work?

A specially trained psychiatrist attaches electrodes to your scalp to deliver electric current to precise areas of your brain, which causes a brief seizure. The treatment causes chemical changes in your brain that can reduce symptoms of mental illness.

Why are there so many misconceptions about ECT?

ECT has been used since the 1940s, and most of the misconceptions are based on early treatment that used high doses of electricity without anesthesia. Today, ECT is much safer. It’s performed by qualified professionals who administer controlled electric currents that offer the greatest benefit at the least possible risk.

At El Camino Health, ECT is administered by trained psychiatrists who work with an anesthesiologist and specialized nurses to maintain the highest level of safety during the procedure and recovery period. All individuals undergo a medical evaluation before receiving ECT to ensure the procedure is appropriate and safe.

What are the possible side effects?

The most common side effects of ECT are headaches, muscle pain and confusion that usually go away shortly after treatment. Other side effects from the procedure can include:

  • Low or high blood pressure
  • Memory problems
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heartbeat

As with all procedures that require anesthesia, there are risks associated with sedation. ECT may not be advised for people with certain medical conditions. You’ll receive a medical evaluation before beginning ECT, so your doctor can tell you whether it’s safe for you.

How long is recovery after each session?

The treatment itself takes about 10 minutes, and you’ll awaken 5 to 10 minutes after the treatment ends. However, because ECT requires general anesthesia, it takes extra time for preparation and recovery. Initially, you may feel groggy as the anesthesia wears off, but you can usually resume normal activities within an hour following ECT.

How many treatments do I need?

Treatment includes two phases, and the number of sessions will depend on how you respond to treatment. Typically, treatment includes:

  • Acute phase – Treatment can be from 15 to 20 treatments.
  • Maintenance phase – Treatment often includes eight treatments over a three-month period to maintain improvement.

In many instances, people who undergo ECT will also take an antidepressant or mood stabilizing medication following ECT treatment.

Does my insurance cover ECT?

Our nurse coordinator is available to help you obtain treatment pre-authorization and determine your insurance coverage.

Do I need a referral for ECT?

Yes. If your psychiatrist believes you can benefit from ECT, our mental health team keeps him or her up to date on your care and progress. In addition, we can provide ECT to people undergoing inpatient psychiatric care at El Camino Health.