Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation And Depression: An Effective Treatment?

Updated January 12, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You may have heard of procedures that involve feeding electricity into the brain to treat a variety of mental health disorders, including depression, but just how rooted in reality are these treatment options? Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a potentially effective and generally safe treatment option that can 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 have some significant benefits.

What Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

Managing The Symptoms Of Depression Can Be Challenging

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) involves stimulating specific portions of the brain with magnetic fields. This is intended to stimulate the nerve cells that may contribute to symptoms of depression; the thought is that doing so may cause these cells to function as they should. Magnetic fields are used to stimulate the brain in hopes of sparking a change because our minds rely on magnetism to operate. You can think of it like trying to use a defibrillator on someone to stimulate the heart. 

Though TMS isn’t considered an invasive procedure and is relatively low risk, it’s typically reserved for instances where other traditional treatment options have failed. Patients who don’t respond to psychotherapy, prescription medication, or other forms of treatment are usually the best candidates for TMS.

How It Works

During most sessions of transcranial magnetic stimulation, a trained professional will place an electromagnetic coil against the scalp. This is done 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 make sure that it's targeting the part of the brain that controls mood (and therefore may cause depression). Professionals believe that areas like these have decreased levels of activity in those with depression. So, by stimulating them into action once more, relief from symptoms may be possible. 

The truth is, there's not a whole lot of information available about this type of therapy, though research does suggest that it works. What we don't know at this point is exactly how it does so and what it's doing to the brain. Likewise, clinical applications are still emerging; some providers may offer a service like transcranial magnetic stimulation, and others may not. As a result, you may want to speak with a doctor or mental health professional if this method of treatment sounds interesting to you. 

Risks Of TMS

Because it's noninvasive and it's not implanting anything, and because anesthesia is not required, TMS is generally considered safe. Most people won't have severe side effects, and the most common risks are generally minor. Still, there are some things to be aware of, especially if you have any preexisting conditions. 

Examples of common side effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation include:

  • 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 live with a mental illness, it can be important to speak with a medical professional about your personal level of risk. Some conditions may mean that TMS is more likely to cause severe side effects.

How You Can Set It Up

If you're interested in TMS and you and your mental health professional think that you may be a good fit, you'll likely first need to get a physical exam. This can help determine if you are physically healthy enough to go through with the procedure. You may also need to go through a psychiatric evaluation to make sure you are mentally ready for the procedure and eligible to receive it.

What It Looks Like

When you walk into the office for your first session, you'll likely be asked to sit in a chair and given earplugs. The coil will be put against your head and then the pulses will be applied. It’s typically 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 generally lasts 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 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 seem more effective. You might also find that obstacles that previously challenged you are easier to overcome. Changes in energy levels, for instance, might make it easier to do other things, too. 

If you don't already have an established connection with a mental health professional, it’s likely a good idea to seek one out as you work your way through TMS. A mental health professional can help you process the results of treatment, decide whether it’s a good option for you, or suggest alternatives as necessary. 

Managing The Symptoms Of Depression Can Be Challenging

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 accessible. 

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 accessibility. 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.

You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

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