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Depression is a complex mental health condition that affects millions of individuals worldwide, causing profound suffering and impairing daily functioning.

While traditional treatments such as therapy and medication have proven effective for many, there are cases where individuals do not respond to these conventional approaches. 

In such situations, shock treatment, also known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), emerges as a potential option.

Shock treatment has long been a subject of curiosity, controversy, and even fear due to its portrayal in popular culture. 

However, it remains a valuable and evidence-based intervention for severe depression that does not respond to other treatments.

In recent years, advancements in technology and refinements in administration have made it safer and more precise than ever before.

This article aims to demystify shock treatment for depression by exploring its history, procedure, efficacy, and side effects. 

What can Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) treat?

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), commonly known as shock treatment, is a medical procedure that involves the controlled administration of electric currents to the brain to intentionally induce a seizure.

It is primarily used in the treatment of severe psychiatric conditions, particularly those that have not responded to other interventions. 

ECT is considered when individuals experience significant impairment in their daily functioning and when the risks associated with their condition outweigh the potential risks of ECT.

Some of the common conditions for which ECT may be indicated include:

1. Major Depressive Disorder (MDD): ECT is most commonly used in the treatment of severe or treatment-resistant depression.

When depressive symptoms are severe and persistent, and other treatments such as medication and therapy have been ineffective, ECT can offer a rapid and effective option for alleviating symptoms.

2. Bipolar Disorder: ECT can be utilized in the treatment of bipolar disorder, particularly in cases of severe depression, manic episodes, or mixed states that are unresponsive to other treatments.

It can help stabilize mood and alleviate symptoms during acute phases of the disorder.

3. Catatonia: ECT is considered a first-line treatment for catatonia, a severe neuropsychiatric condition characterized by motor abnormalities, mutism, and withdrawal.

ECT has been shown to be highly effective in rapidly resolving catatonic symptoms and restoring normal functioning.

4. Schizophrenia: ECT may be used in the treatment of schizophrenia, particularly in cases where there is a significant risk of harm to oneself or others, or when other treatments have been ineffective.

It can help alleviate severe psychotic symptoms and improve overall functioning.

The exact mechanism by which ECT works to treat severe depression and other mental illnesses is not fully understood.

However, it is known that ECT induces seizure activity, leading to various chemical changes in the brain. 

These chemical changes may interact and accumulate, resulting in a reduction of symptoms associated with severe depression or other mental illnesses.

Consequently, ECT tends to be most effective when administered as a full course of multiple treatments.

Historical Context of ECT

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ECT has a rich and complex history that spans several decades. Its origins can be traced back to the 1930s when Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini first introduced the concept of inducing seizures to treat severe psychiatric disorders. 

Initially, they experimented with various stimuli, including chemicals and drugs, before settling on electrical stimulation as the most effective method.

During its early years, ECT gained popularity and was widely used for a range of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and depression. 

However, the treatment faced significant controversy due to concerns about its potential side effects and ethical implications.

Portrayed negatively in popular culture, shock treatment became associated with images of patient distress and loss of personal autonomy.

Over time, advancements in the field of psychiatry and medical technology led to refinements in the administration of ECT. Modern practices prioritize patient safety, comfort, and informed consent.

Anesthesia and muscle relaxants are now utilized to mitigate any discomfort during the procedure, and the treatments are carefully tailored to individual needs.

Despite its complicated history, shock treatment has endured as a valuable intervention for severe depression that is unresponsive to other treatments.

The stigma surrounding ECT has started to diminish as more research and clinical evidence highlight its efficacy and safety when administered appropriately.

Procedure and Administration

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a carefully administered procedure performed by a trained healthcare team in a controlled medical setting.

The treatment typically involves a series of sessions conducted over several weeks, depending on the individual’s specific needs and treatment response.

Pre-Treatment Measures

Before undergoing ECT, a thorough evaluation is conducted to assess the patient’s medical history, current mental health status, and any potential risks or contraindications.

This evaluation helps determine the appropriateness of ECT and ensures that the patient is a suitable candidate for the treatment.

As general anesthesia is an important component of ECT, individuals undergoing this procedure will be instructed by their healthcare provider to adhere to fasting guidelines.

These guidelines typically involve refraining from consuming any food for a period of eight hours prior to the ECT procedure. 

In addition, the consumption of liquids is usually stopped two hours before the procedure. These fasting requirements are in place to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the anesthesia during the ECT session.

What to Expect During an ECT Session

During an ECT session, the patient is first given general anesthesia to induce a state of unconsciousness. This ensures that they do not experience pain or discomfort during the procedure.

Additionally, a muscle relaxant is administered to prevent any physical convulsions or movements.

To protect the patient’s teeth and tongue from potential injury, a mouth guard is often placed in the mouth before the treatment begins.

This helps prevent any accidental biting or damage to oral structures during the seizure.

To deliver the electrical stimulation, electrodes are strategically placed on the patient’s scalp. The placement of electrodes can vary, depending on the type of ECT being performed. 

The two main types are bilateral and unilateral ECT. Bilateral ECT involves placing electrodes on both sides of the scalp, while unilateral ECT focuses on one side.

Recently, bifrontal ECT, which targets specific frontal regions of the brain, has also gained attention.

Once the patient is under anesthesia and muscle relaxation, a brief electrical current is applied through the electrodes.

This induces a carefully controlled seizure lasting typically between 20 and 60 seconds. The seizure activity in the brain is not visible externally due to the muscle relaxant’s effects.

Internally, the brain activity increases and is recorded by an electroencephalogram (EEG), which shows the beginning and end of the seizure.

Throughout the procedure, the medical team closely monitors the patient’s vital signs and brain activity to ensure their safety.

Post-Treatment Care

After the procedure, the patient is carefully monitored as they wake up from anesthesia.

Post-treatment recovery typically takes around 30 minutes to an hour, and patients are often advised to have someone accompany them home after the session.

The number of ECT sessions required varies depending on the individual’s response to treatment, with most treatment courses consisting of six to twelve sessions.

The sessions are usually scheduled two to three times per week, and the overall treatment duration may range from a few weeks to a few months.

Is ECT Effective?

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Many individuals experience significant improvements in their symptoms after a course of ECT.

While response rates may vary, studies have demonstrated that approximately 80% of patients with severe depression respond positively to ECT.

One of the advantages of ECT is its relatively rapid onset of action.

Unlike antidepressant medications, which can take weeks or even months to show an effect, ECT can lead to noticeable improvements in symptoms within a few sessions.

This can be particularly beneficial for individuals experiencing severe depression or those at risk of self-harm or suicide.

However, ECT is not a cure-all and may not work for everyone. Some individuals may not respond adequately to ECT, while others may experience a partial response.

Additionally, the duration of symptom relief can vary, and ongoing treatment may be necessary to maintain the benefits achieved with ECT.

Risks of ECT

While ECT is generally considered safe and well-tolerated, like any medical procedure, it carries certain risks and potential side effects.

It is essential for individuals considering ECT or discussing it with their healthcare provider to be aware of these risks. 

Some of the potential risks associated with ECT include:

1. Temporary Memory Loss: 

One of the most common side effects of ECT is memory loss. This can manifest as difficulty in recalling events that occurred shortly before or after the treatment. In most cases, this memory loss is temporary and resolves over time. 

However, for some individuals, there may be more persistent or long-term memory-related effects.

2. Cognitive Side Effects: 

ECT can sometimes cause transient cognitive side effects, such as confusion, disorientation, difficulties with attention and concentration, and word-finding difficulties.

These effects are typically short-lived and tend to improve as the course of treatment progresses.

However, in rare cases, individuals may experience more persistent cognitive changes.

3. Physical Side Effects: 

ECT involves administering anesthesia and muscle relaxants, which can have potential risks associated with them.

These risks include reactions to anesthesia, cardiovascular changes, and muscle soreness or aching after the procedure.

Additionally, there is a small risk of fractures or other injuries during the seizure due to muscle contractions, but this is rare.

4. Medical Complications: 

Individuals with certain pre-existing medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or respiratory problems, may be at a higher risk of experiencing medical complications during or after ECT.

It is crucial to thoroughly evaluate a person’s medical history before proceeding with ECT to minimize potential risks.

5. Relapse of Symptoms: 

While ECT can be highly effective in alleviating symptoms, there is a risk of relapse once the treatment is completed.

Maintenance strategies, such as continuation or maintenance ECT, medication, or therapy, may be recommended to prevent or reduce the risk of relapse.


Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a valuable treatment option for individuals with severe psychiatric conditions who have not responded to other interventions.

While ECT may not work for everyone, many individuals experience improvements in their symptoms after a series of treatments. 

It is important to note that ongoing treatment, such as medication or psychotherapy, may be necessary even after improvement with ECT to prevent symptom recurrence.

With careful monitoring and an individualized approach, ECT can provide significant relief and contribute to the overall well-being of individuals struggling with severe psychiatric conditions.


1. How long does an electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) session typically last?

An ECT session usually lasts around 10 to 15 minutes, but the overall duration may vary depending on individual factors and the specific treatment plan.

2. How many ECT treatments are usually required?

The number of ECT treatments required can vary depending on the individual’s condition and response to the therapy.

Typically, a full course of ECT consists of several sessions, ranging from 6 to 12 treatments, scheduled over a few weeks.

3. Is ECT a painful procedure?

No, ECT is not painful. The patient is under general anesthesia and muscle relaxants, which ensure that they are unconscious and do not experience any pain or discomfort during the procedure.

4. Will ECT affect a person’s ability to work or engage in daily activities?

ECT may temporarily affect a person’s ability to work or engage in daily activities immediately following the procedure due to the effects of anesthesia.

However, these effects are usually short-lived, and individuals can typically resume their normal activities within a short period of time.



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