Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation And Depression: An Effective Treatment?

By Samantha Dewitt|Updated April 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Dutil , LMHC, LPC

If you're struggling with depression, you've probably looked into just about any type of treatment out there, right? You may have tried medication (possibly several different medications) and therapy. But maybe you're looking for something a little different. Maybe you've heard about transcranial magnetic stimulation & depression and now you're wondering if it's really the answer that you've been looking for. There are a number of studies that are still ongoing about just how effective this method of treatment is and to whom it might work for, so take a look at this and see what you think.

What Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

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Okay, so we strung a few long words together and now they really don't make a whole lot of sense, right? Well, this is actually a relatively simple process to understand even if it's a complex one to actually execute. With transcranial magnetic stimulation, you're actually stimulating specific portions of the brain with magnetic fields. This is intended to stimulate the nerve cells that are causing some of your depressive symptoms and the idea is that this will cause them to jump back to what they're supposed to be doing.

So transcranial is because it's happening to the brain. Magnetic is because those are the fields that are being used and stimulation because that's exactly what those magnetic fields are doing. They're going to stimulate the brain to try and get a reaction. In this form of treatment, you're actually going to get multiple magnetic pulses in order to try and jump-start your nerve cells. You can think of it something like if you were trying to use a defibrillator on someone to stimulate his or her heart. You're trying to spark something to happen on the inside by using electricity on the outside.

How It Works

When it comes down to actually executing this particular method of treatment you're going to be sitting down and a trained professional will place an electromagnetic coil against your scalp. This is done near the front of the head and then the pulse is passed through the scalp and into the brain. It's placed in this particular area to make sure that it's targeting the part of your brain that controls your mood and therefore also controls your depression. The idea is that these areas have decreased activity with depression and you can get them moving again.

The truth is, there's not a whole lot of information known about this type of therapy, though research does suggest that it works. What we don't know at this point is exactly how it's all working and what it's doing to the brain. As a result, you may want to discuss this further with your doctor and your mental health professional before you decide that it's something you want to pursue. You'll also want to do some additional research on your own to find out even more about the outcomes and the side effects.

Do You Want it?

There are a number of questions to ask yourself if you're even considering this particular method of treatment, but one of the first things you'll need to do is find out if you're even eligible. Because of the severity of this procedure, even if it is noninvasive, there are some standards that you'll need to follow and one is that generally it's only used when other types of therapy or treatment just aren't working. You'll need to talk with a mental health professional in order to determine whether or not you can even consider it.

Risks Of TMS

When it comes to the risks you definitely want to know what you're getting into, right? Well, one of the things you're going to be getting into is the potential side effect. You should know that, because it's noninvasive and it's not implanting anything, and because anesthesia is not required, this type of treatment is generally considered safe. Most people won't have severe side effects and the most common side effects you will experience are quite safe and generally minor. Still, there are some things that you should watch out for, especially if you have any preexisting conditions.

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

These would be considered more common but also minor effects. They tend to decrease over time and most individuals have fewer problems with them as they continue to receive additional treatments. You may also have mild to moderate levels of the symptoms, but it's the ones following (which occur far more rarely) that you should be watching for:

  • Loss of hearing
  • Mania
  • Seizures

If you have a history of seizure, or if you're suffering from bipolar disorder you'll want to talk about this with your mental health professional and your doctor before you consider this type of therapy, as you could be at a higher risk for negative side effects.

How You Can Set it Up

If you're really interested and you and your mental health professional think that you may be a good fit, you'll want to go through the process to make sure. This is going to involve rather broad steps. First, you're going to need to get a physical exam, which will determine if you are physically healthy enough to go through this procedure. You'll also need to go through a psychiatric evaluation to make sure you are mentally ready for the procedure and also eligible to receive it.

What It Looks Like

When you walk into the office for your first session, you'll be asked to sit in a chair and given earplugs. It's important that you wear these to make sure that you're fully protected during the procedure. The coil will be put against your head and then the pulses will be applied. It will be up to the doctor that you're working with to decide the specific strength of the magnetic energy that's used as well as the specific number of pulses that will be used.

While the procedure is happening, you'll likely hear and even feel a tapping and clicking. Each procedure is generally going to last about 40-60 minutes including the preparation time as well as the actual time sitting in the chair and undergoing treatment. Once you are finished with your treatment, you can usually return to your normal life. You'll be able to work, to drive and to carry on with anything else that you would normally do in the course of a day. Make sure you talk with your doctor to make sure they don't recommend any additional restrictions.

What Happens Next?

You could return for more sessions of transcranial magnetic stimulation or you may be sent back to your mental health professional for further treatment and therapy. This could be all it takes for you to start recognizing results and start jumpstarting the improvements you've been hoping for. With the use of this type of stimulation, you may find that other methods of therapy that didn't work for you before suddenly do seem to work better than before and this is why it's important to give therapy another chance once you've tried a session of this stimulation.

If you don't have a mental health professional it's important that you seek one out to talk over the possibilities that are available to you. If you haven't talked with someone recently the mental health professional that you interact with will definitely want to talk with you at least several sessions to make sure that you are a candidate for this type of treatment and to try other types of therapy before they set you up with an appointment. Make sure you're open and honest and you'll have the best chance of getting the help you're looking for.

Who You Need

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If you are looking for a mental health professional, the best thing that you can do is reach out to someone who is available entirely online. After all, you really don't want to have to deal with going to a physical location for your therapy, right? You would much rather spend your time doing other things rather than traveling back and forth to therapy as well. So getting online is the best thing you can do because it eliminates both of these problems for you. You just set up an appointment and log on when it's time.

BetterHelp is where you'll want to go when you're ready to start your first therapy session. You can find a host of different mental health professionals who are more than ready to help you with anything you're going through. Whether you're experiencing depression or anything else, there are definitely going to be several options for you to talk to and you'll have no problem finding someone that you're comfortable with and ready to open up to. Once you do, you will be able to begin your sessions routinely and you may be able to set up an appointment for transcranial magnetic stimulation, depending on how other methods of treatment go.

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