It’s a treatment that has been highly stigmatized, but for some patients struggling with severe, treatment-resistant depression, it can dramatically improve symptoms and quality of life. In some cases, it can even prove life-saving.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a low-risk procedure administered after a patient receives general anesthesia and a muscle relaxant. Once a patient is sedated, a mild current is delivered to his or her scalp to initiate a short brain seizure lasting 20 to 60 seconds. The seizure causes a change in brain chemistry which has been shown to improve the symptoms of depression. After treatment, the patient is monitored through recovery and able return home the same day with the help of a care partner. The total treatment time is approximately one hour.
Some common side effects include mild headache, queasiness, dry mouth and slight loss of short-term memory which tends to return after the day of treatment.
One benefit of ECT is the ability to treat depression that in most cases hasn’t responded to medications.
“Most patients have been suffering from depression for years. They’ve lost jobs, relationships, their health,” said Dr. Christopher Morache, a psychiatrist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “This is a way to try to give them relief and have a better outcome. Some of these patients are suicidal and this treatment saves their lives.”
According to Dr. Morache, not every patient is an appropriate candidate for ECT treatments and a thorough screening process is done to make sure they qualify. For those who are appropriate, relief can take up to ten treatments, sometimes longer. In fact, many of his patients receive treatments in phases which can last up to a year or more to help avoid the risk of symptoms returning in the future.
Why don’t many people know much about ECT?
“Well for one, there are not a lot places in San Diego County that offer it,” says Dr. Morache. “Sharp Mesa Vista and Sharp Grossmont Hospital are the only facilities in San Diego who provide these treatments on non-military patients.”
Because of limited facilities in the county, the ECT staff at Sharp Mesa Vista performs 25 to 35 treatments a day, or about 5,000 to 6,000 treatments a year.
Dr. Morache is thankful the hospital can offer this treatment to so many patients and notes the positive feedback he receives.
“Patients are telling me they can finally see vibrancy in their lives again when everything was gray and drab for so long. Things are more colorful than they can remember.”
For the media: To talk with Dr. Morache about ECT, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was updated in June 2017.