Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is the most effective treatment for depression. It is also used to treat other forms of mental illness. ECT is especially helpful for severe or treatment-resistant illness.

Download our Consent for Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) form (PDF)

This video provides an introduction to ECT for patients, family members, and clinicians who may be considering this treatment option.

ECT benefits

  • The most effective treatment for depression available
  • Quick improvement for the most severe cases, such as:
    • Catatonia
    • Depression with psychosis
    • Suicidal thoughts
  • Can be helpful for treatment-resistant schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder
  • Sometimes used for Parkinson's disease
  • Helpful when potential side effects of the procedure are less harmful than adverse effects from medications

ECT treatment

Before ECT, we give you anesthesia to enhance safety and tolerability. Then, we apply a brief (up to 8 seconds) electrical current through electrodes placed on your head. The electrical stimulation induces a short seizure, which results in the therapeutic effects.

We set up your ECT treatment schedule based on your response and needs. You cannot drive after ECT so a support person needs to bring you to treatments.

An acute course involves treatment two to three times per week for 6-12 treatments.

Maintenance ECT can be helpful to prevent future depressive episodes. We can schedule these treatments every 2 to 6 weeks.

How it works

Similar to other treatment options, it is not known exactly how this brain stimulation helps treat depression. ECT likely works by changing brain chemicals, including neurotransmitters, such as:

  • Natural pain relievers called endorphins
  • Proteins involved in neuron growth 
  • Serotonin

By enhancing neuron growth and correcting brain pathways, your mood improves.

ECT risks

There are some risks involved with the ECT procedure. But, for many people, the risks of untreated depression are higher.

Like medications and other medical treatments, ECT has risks and side effects. To reduce the risk of problems, we provide a medical review before starting ECT.

Common side effects

  • Headaches
  • Memory loss (often resolves within two weeks of stopping ECT)
  • Mild to moderate muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Temporary confusion

Rare adverse events

ECT is one of the safest outpatient procedures. But, like any procedure using anesthesia, there are rare risks, such as:

  • Breathing problems
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

Studies involving thousands of patients show that the risks of ECT are very low.

How ECT can affect memory

The most common memory problems include short-term working memory and concentration issues. Typically, these resolve within two weeks of stopping ECT.

Many studies show that memory and thinking improves after ECT, since depression itself can cause memory problems.

Gaps in memory can occur around the time of treatment. Most of these memories return and only rarely do the memory gaps persist.