Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a medical treatment that psychiatrists use to treat mood disorders such as severe depression, mania, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric and neurological disorders.
ECT is administered under safe and highly controlled medical circumstances, sometimes with the assistance of an anesthesiologist. During the treatment and the recovery period, the person's pulse, blood pressure, heart rhythm, and blood oxygen concentration are carefully monitored. When the ECT is given, a sophisticated machine passes a precisely controlled electric current through a person's scalp and induces a seizure throughout the brain. Because the patient has received anesthesia and a drug that briefly paralyzes the muscles, an observer will notice only small movements of the patient's fingers, toes, and eyelids. However, the seizure activity will be very apparent on the ECT machine's brain wave monitor, where a characteristic pattern of waves can be seen. The seizure lasts about a minute and is followed by a quiet, relaxed state. When the person awakes, he or she is comfortable but a little disoriented, a problem that resolves within minutes. After the treatment, the person is given liquids and light food, and he or she is promptly able to walk around without help.
Most patients receive six to 12 ECT treatments, which usually are administered three times per week. After these initial ECT treatments, continued care is essential to prevent return of symptoms. Such treatment usually involves medications (such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers) and psychotherapy. Some people, especially those who have not responded to medications or who cannot tolerate the side effects of medications, may benefit from receiving further treatment with ECT. For such individuals, ECT is administered far less frequently (once a month as a maintenance dose, for example).