Depression is a debilitating health condition that can make it exceptionally difficult for an individual to function in their daily life. Fortunately, standard treatment methods like medication and therapy have helped countless people begin living more fulfilling lives again. But what do you do if those first-line treatments aren’t effective at alleviating depression symptoms?
For many people facing treatment-resistant depression, brain stimulation therapies such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) offer an effective option in the wake of unsatisfactory results from medication and therapy.
What Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?
Not to be confused with electroconvulsive therapy (CT) transcranial magnetic stimulation is a non-invasive form of brain stimulation that uses brief magnetic pulses of the same type and strength as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. TMS can target specific areas of the brain, and the magnetic pulses generally do not pass any farther than about two inches into the brain.
In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), or delivering repeated magnetic pulses into the brain, as a treatment method for individuals with major depression who did not respond to at least one antidepressant medication during a current depressive episode.
What Is a TMS Session Like?
Unlike an ECT session, a typical TMS session does not require anesthesia, so the individual receiving treatment is awake throughout the procedure. During the session, the technician places an electromagnetic coil against the scalp near the forehead, focusing on the area of the brain that researchers believe plays a role in mood regulation.
TMS can be an intensive process, requiring treatment five days a week for several weeks, with sessions lasting 20 to 60 minutes depending on an individual’s level of need. Although the procedure is generally painless, people often feel knocking or tapping on their heads while the technician administers the magnetic pulses.
TMS is generally considered safe and well tolerated, but some people experience side effects from the procedure. Some individuals feel discomfort where the magnet is placed, such as scalp, jaw, or face contractions, or tingling during the procedure. Others experience headaches or lightheadedness after the procedure ends.
Because some discomfort and side effects can occur, it’s important for individuals to communicate any pain they might be experiencing when undergoing TMS treatment so their doctor can adjust the stimulation level and reduce any further discomfort or side effects.
How Does TMS Work?
How TMS works isn’t fully understood, but brain stimulation therapies in general appear to change how the brain works. These direct changes in the brain have been shown to alleviate depression symptoms in many people who have been unable to experience any relief from medication and therapy alone.
But, like other forms of treatment, TMS generally isn’t a permanent solution. Although many people have experienced relief for months or even more than a year, most need additional TMS treatments to see continued effects.
For an individual struggling with treatment-resistant depression, that battle can often feel endless. When modalities such as medication and therapy aren’t helping, though, brain stimulation therapies like transcranial magnetic stimulation might be the solution that helps them achieve a better outcome.