Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation And Depression: An Effective Treatment?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated January 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you or someone you know experiences symptoms of depression, you may have heard of a treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. TMS can sometimes help with symptoms of depression as well as other brain-related conditions. There are some risks associated with the treatment, but when conducted safely and properly, it can yield some significant benefits in some patients.

What Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

Managing The Symptoms Of Depression Can Be Challenging

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) involves stimulating specific areas of the brain with magnetic fields. This is intended to stimulate the nerve cells that may contribute to symptoms of depression. Magnetic fields are used to stimulate the brain in hopes of sparking a change, as our minds rely on magnetism to operate.

Although TMS isn’t considered an invasive procedure and is relatively low risk, it’s typically reserved for instances where other traditional treatment options have not produced the desired results. Patients who don’t respond to psychotherapy, prescription medication, or other forms of treatment may be candidates for TMS. There are some risks associated with TMS therapy, but when conducted safely and properly, it can have some significant benefits for some patients. 

Getty/AnnaStills

How TMS Works

During most sessions of transcranial magnetic stimulation, a trained professional places an electromagnetic coil against the scalp, near the front of the head. Next, a pulse is passed through the scalp and into the brain. It's placed in this area to target the part of the brain that controls mood. Researchers believe that areas like this have decreased levels of activity in individuals who experience depression. By stimulating them into action, doctors may help patients experience relief from depression symptoms.

According to Harvard Medical School, more than 50% of individuals who didn’t experience relief from depression with medication experience a “clinically meaningful response with TMS.”

As a result, you may want to speak with a doctor or mental health professional if this method of treatment sounds interesting to you.

Getty/AnnaStills
Managing The Symptoms Of Depression Can Be Challenging

Risks Of TMS

Because TMS is noninvasive and doesn’t involve anesthesia, it is generally considered safe. Most people don't have severe side effects, and the most common risks are typically minor. Still, there are some risks to be aware of, especially if you have any preexisting conditions.

The following are some examples of side effects:

  • Headache
  • Discomfort of the scalp
  • Lightheadedness
  • Tingling or spasms in facial muscles

Treat Depression In Online Therapy

Regardless of whether you pursue TMS, therapy will likely become a necessary part of your journey to relieve symptoms of depression. The benefits of therapy are numerous, especially with the rise in online therapy options. Being able to seek the care you need from wherever you are means that you don’t even need to get out of bed to find support. Even on your toughest days, an online therapist can be more convenient. 

If you’re living with depression or symptoms related to it, you might find that online therapy is preferable to in-person options for more reasons than just flexibility. In fact, one literature review of 17 studies noted that online therapy may be more effective than in-person therapy when it comes to treating symptoms of depression. TMS alone often isn’t enough to make symptoms go away and stay away, but with the support of a mental health professional, you may be able to see a more significant change in the way you feel and function.

Takeaway

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a unique treatment option that utilizes a magnetic field to jumpstart and potentially change activity in the brain. When used to target areas that affect our mood, TMS can help treat depression and other related mental health disorders. Side effects are usually mild and short-lived, but TMS is still generally reserved for cases where other treatment approaches aren’t successful. A mental health professional can help you navigate TMS or other options to manage your depression symptoms and begin to make a positive change.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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