Electroconvulsive Therapy


Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is typically used when other treatments, including medications and various types of therapy, haven’t been successful in managing a mental illness. Your Mercy provider may also recommend ECT for you if you need a rapid treatment response due to the severity of your condition, such as being at risk for suicide.

What is ECT Treatment? 

ECT involves brief electrical stimulation of the brain while the patient is under anesthesia. It’s typically administered by a multispecialty team including a psychiatrist, an anesthesiologist and a nurse or physician assistant. ECT is normally done as an outpatient procedure to treat major depression and other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

ECT Procedure

Before each treatment, you’ll be given general anesthesia and a muscle relaxant. Electrodes that stimulate your brain with controlled electrical pulses will be attached to your scalp. The pulses induce electrical stimulation that lasts for about a minute. You’re asleep during the procedure and will typically wake up after 5-10 minutes, as with minor surgery. You’ll be able to resume normal activity in about an hour.

How Does ECT Work? 

ECT’s electrical stimulation increases brain activity. The exact process of how ECT improves symptoms is not fully understood, but your mood and behavior are influenced by a delicate balance of brain chemicals. While the chemicals in your brain were out of balance before, ECT can shift these chemicals back to normal. As a result, you may notice improvements in your symptoms. 

Prior to ECT treatment, you'll need a full evaluation. The following exams help ensure that ECT is safe for you.

  • Medical history review and complete physical exam, including medical clearance for ECT
  • Psychiatric assessment
  • Laboratory tests, including CBC and comprehensive metabolic panel
  • Chest X-ray (as directed by physician)
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) to check your heart health
  • Conversation on anesthesia risks
  • Pregnancy test for women still having periods

ECT Side Effects

Some patients report temporary confusion immediately following treatment which can last from a few minutes to a few hours. They might also report physical effects, such as headaches, muscle pain and nausea.

Other side effects can include:

  • Minor memory loss
  • Adverse reactions to anesthesia
  • Blood pressure problems like hypertension and hypotension
  • Heart problems (in rare cases)

Side effects of ECT are rare and can normally be prevented through proper pre-diagnosis. 

Although ECT can be very effective for individuals with serious mental illness, it’s not a cure. To prevent the illness from returning, most people treated with ECT must continue some type of maintenance treatment. Maintenance could include psychotherapy, medication or additional ECT treatments.

Mercy offers ECT at select locations, talk to your Mercy provider to find out if ECT is right for you. We provide care with compassion and dignity to help you restore a healthy emotional balance.

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