Does ECT Cause Bipolar Memory Loss?

By Sarah Fader

Updated February 24, 2020

Reviewer Aaron Horn

What is Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

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Electroconvulsive therapy or ECT is a medical treatment that helps people with serious depression (major depressive disorder) and Bipolar disorder that is unresponsive to typical psychiatric treatment. ECT works by stimulating the brain when the patient is anesthetized. The process starts when a client is put under general anesthesia, which is done by a medical professional and treatment team typically including an anesthesiologist and a nurse or practitioner. Having a treatment team to conduct ECT is essential, and medically necessary. It's a form of therapy that cannot be conducted without several medical providers involved in the process. As a patient, you need to feel confident in your provider, and with ECT there is a distinct level of trust that needs to be there for it to be successful.

How Does ECT work?

When you are someone with bipolar disorder, and you've tried countless medications that don't work for your symptoms, you may be at a loss. That's when you can benefit from considering ECT. It's a form of treatment that is used as an alternative to psychiatric medications. ECT is effective according to a wealth of scientific research and studies for people with Bipolar disorder who have been unresponsive to treatment by psychiatric medication. The reason that it works is that it stimulates the brain in a particular way that psychiatric medication and therapy does not. It also provides a rapid response rather than psychiatric medication which take a long time to work; potentially several weeks to months.

ECT is provided to patients who are at risk of harming themselves, are experiencing suicidal ideation, or have symptoms that aren't regulated by other forms of treatment. The effectiveness of ECT has been documented by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as well as the American Medical Association and similar organizations in various countries throughout the world. It's a form of treatment that has been around for many years and that has been proven to be effective throughout time.

Fear of ECT

There are many people who may be afraid of ECT due to the historical roots of it. It's important to remember that it isn't the same as when it was used in the mid-20th century. ECT was invented in Italy during the late 1930's. There were studies from psychiatrists that revealed that prompting seizures helped alleviate the symptoms of various mental illnesses. Before they used ECT to induce seizures psychiatrists turned to chemicals for this purpose. After they discovered this new treatment method, they realized that it could be just as if not more effective than chemicals.

ECT in Mania and Depression

ECT treats both mania and depression in patients with bipolar disorder. It's an effective form of treatment because of the way that it stimulates the brain, however, it can have long-term consequences for an individual's memory and can cause cognitive changes. There's a controversial concept that ECT can make memory performance poor in the long run, and there are studies that indicate that this is true, which is why it's sometimes used as a last resort; people do not want to run the risk of having limited function as it relates to their memory and thinking.

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If therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes aren't enough to treat the symptoms of Bipolar disorder, they'd participate in ECT as a potential last resort. Weighing the cost and benefit of this form of treatment is important if it's something that you're considering because you want to make sure that you're aware of the side effects and potential long-term changes that can occur with ECT. ECT is primarily used to treat the depression side of the Bipolar mood, and people with bipolar disorder that are experiencing tremendous levels of depression and suicidal ideation, and it can be extremely effective for these patients.

Side Effects of ECT

There are side effects of ECT that have been documented by scientific studies on people who have ECT. Here are the potential side effects of this form of treatment:

  • Vomiting
  • Persistent headaches
  • Stiffness in the muscles
  • Difficulty eating
  • Jaw pain
  • Feeling disoriented
  • Difficulty eating
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Aching muscles

Who Can Tolerate ECT?

As mentioned above, ECT is often used as a last resort when other methods of treatment do not work to treat Bipolar depression. It is something that can treat people who cannot take medication, and one of the groups that often falls into this category is individuals who are pregnant. When a person is pregnant, they want to make sure that the fetus is healthy, and some medications for Bipolar disorder aren't safe to take during pregnancy whereas other medications are safe or propose minimal risk to the fetus. ECT is considered to be safe for people who are pregnant, and there are studies which indicate that it's less risky for the baby than taking medication. With that said, this is all contingent on the preferences, needs, and circumstances of the person experiencing the Depression, and different forms of treatment will be the best fit for different people in this situation in terms of both safety and comfortability. Another thing to consider is that for an older adult who is at risk for dementia, you'll want to weigh the pros and cons of this form of treatment.

Memory Loss and its Long-Term Consequences

ECT is a form of treatment that can cause serious memory problems over time. When you become older, you're more at risk for cognitive issues and memory problems. That's why it's extremely important to speak with your doctor if you are over the age of 65 or experiencing memory problems to begin with, because ECT and further complicate issues with recall. Older adults are at increased risk for dementia, so someone with Bipolar disorder who is considering ECT will want to be aware that ECT can cause persistent and progressive memory loss. If someone is already experiencing cognitive difficulties or having trouble remembering things, for example, they might not want to make their struggles worse. It's vital to talk in-depth with a medical professional before deciding to pursue ECT. Do your research as well so you can make an educated decision. You can speak with a doctor and find out great information about the topic, but also look into ECT on your own. You can crowdsource by speaking to people who have had the treatment done. They can tell you firsthand what ECT was like for them.

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To understand how it works on an in-depth level, you will have to experience it for yourself, but in the meantime, you can certainly speak to people who have tried it. Another thing you can do is read some scientific studies about ECT and find out how effective it is, and how often it has caused memory issues for patients. Empower yourself and look into the subject of treatment. That way if and when you decide to get ECT done, you'll know the benefits and the risks involved and there will be little guess work.

How ECT Has Evolved Over Time

Reading all of this might make ECT seem scary, and it's certainly important to consider the potential risks. With that said, ECT can be life-changing, and having this form of treatment around has saved the lives of many. ECT was first developed in the 1930s, and it has evolved dramatically since. ECT isn't what you see in the movies. It's a complex form of treatment that has evolved over time, and has been nearly perfected. It's been a savior to some people who have lived with treatment resistant bipolar disorder. Those individuals who have sensitivity to medications and are hesitant to continue with the trial and error of various medications can greatly benefit from ECT, although everyone is different and it might not work for you. It's a good idea to speak with a medical professional that you trust and get the appropriate guidance for your concerns.

You may decide after consulting with a medical provider that you'd like to try ECT. You may also make a choice to pursue other forms of treatment. Ultimately, your treatment plan for mental health is highly individual and you're in charge of what works for you.

Getting Help for Bipolar Disorder and Other Mental Health Issues

If you're considering ECT, it's important to weigh your options. It's not the only form of treatment for bipolar disorder. And it's important to note, that many people have benefited from a combination of medication and therapy. When it comes to therapy, and talking to someone about your emotions, online counseling is an excellent option. One of the best ways to cope with bipolar disorder is by speaking with a mental health professional on a regular basis. Online therapy is an excellent place to discuss issues pertaining to Bipolar disorder, and you can use it to voice your concerns about memory loss and ECT.

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There's a certain level of comfort in speaking to a counselor who understands your struggles. At BetterHelp, the mental health professionals care about your wellbeing and want to support you in living a fulfilling life regardless of what your mental health concerns are. Search the network of online therapists here at BetterHelp. There are professionals who are experts in bipolar disorder who can help you live a fulfilling life.


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