TMS is a safe, non-invasive treatment cleared by the FDA to help treat depression in patients who have not found relief with standard treatments. This Glam article explains TMS and its effectiveness in treating depression and other mental health conditions.
Major depression is a mental health disorder that affects adults, young adults, children, and teenagers. According to KFF, at least one-third of the adult population in the United States may live with some form of depression and/or anxiety, with those falling between the ages of 18-24 affected at a rate of about 50%.
Standard treatments for depression include medications, talk therapy, and possible hospitalization, but for those whose condition doesn’t. Doctors and scientists have been seeking new ways to help such treatment-resistant patients. From acupuncture to exercise and yoga, all sorts of other options exist, and one of the newest varieties being talked about right now is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). However, it’s important to fully understand TMS before making a decision about whether it’s the solution you’ve been looking for.
The origin of TMS
Although TMS may be unfamiliar to many, it has actually been around since 1985, as noted by the Iranian Journal of Child Neurology. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the FDA approved TMS as a treatment, making it more widely available to patients. According to Harvard Health Publishing, TMS originated as an alternative to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), commonly known as shock therapy, which is still used to treat depression and other mental health issues, sometimes to great effect. However, ECT has side effects such as memory loss, confusion, and nausea (per American Psychiatric Association). As detailed by Scientific America, ECT also has a controversial history, largely stemming from fear related to how it was utilized in mental hospitals during the 1950s. TMS was developed as a less invasive alternative to ECT
Andrew Leuchter, MD, told UCLA Health, “We discovered many years ago that ECT was an effective treatment for depression -– you put electricity in the head, which causes a seizure and resets brain frequency. Then we thought, what if we use magnetic waves to accomplish the same thing but without a seizure – resetting brain networks without the ECT side effects.” TMS is still a promising alternative to ECT and other invasive treatments for depression.
How TMS works
Transcranial magnetic stimulation, as the name suggests, “uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.” An electromagnetic coil is placed on the patient’s head to energize parts of the brain that aren’t as active as they should be. This stimulation is often compared to the sensation of someone tapping on your head. TMS has been used not only to treat depression but also to help people living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and smoking addiction.
The benefits of TMS Therapy
The benefits of TMS therapy for treating symptoms of depression look promising. According to Healthline, TMS can stimulate nerve cells that have reduced activity. All of the benefits of TMS, no matter whether being used to treat addiction, OCD, or depression, stem from its ability to boost these nerve cells into action. Based on existing data, the number of major depression patients who have experienced positive effects following TMS sessions ranges from 30 to 64 percent. Its usefulness for other conditions requires further exploration.
For OCD, TMS can reduce symptoms. For those with PTSD and anxiety, TMS appears to help control normally uncontrollable fears. TMS not only helps relieve depression, but it may also help with motor cortex stimulation, reducing feelings of chronic pain. TMS is used to treat additional illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s disease, and even stroke recovery. Studies suggest that any illness that affects the brain has the potential to find relief with TMS, though again, this merits additional research. While TMS may not reverse diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, it has been shown to alleviate some of the symptoms.
Best candidates for TMS therapy
TMS is not only used to treat depression, OCD, and nicotine addiction. According to Advanced Psychiatry Associates, if you’ve unsuccessfully tried medications and other treatments for bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or even chronic pain, you may be a good candidate for TMS. It also may help with more addictions than just smoking. For each of these illnesses, TMS has supplied benefits, from alleviating some of the depression that comes with bipolar disorder to much of the anxiety that is part of dealing with PTSD. Even the treatment of chronic pain using TMS leans into the fact that this therapy helps with depression, which is common in those living with chronic health issues.
How to determine if TMS is for you
Given its potential benefits, you may wonder if TMS is worth looking into. However, you should only consider this treatment if you’ve exhausted other options and they’ve proven ineffective. It also may be a solution for individuals who have experienced unbearable side effects from taking medication. Consulting with your doctor is the best way to determine if TMS is a viable treatment option for you, as they have access to your medical history and know what has already been tried (and failed) in treating your mental health concerns.
What to know before treatment
If your doctor has agreed that TMS is right for you, it’s time to prepare for the actual treatment. Much like a therapy session, your doctor will ask you some questions prior to treatment. The questions will revolve around your mood, what you’ve been eating, medications, your sleep schedule, and any changes you may have made to your routine. Consistency is key for the treatments to have their best effect on your brain, according to Mindpath Health. If you’ve made changes, you may need to reschedule your appointment. You may be asked more questions at consecutive appointments that will help the doctor see how the treatments are working for you.
Your initial appointment will be a lengthier one, as the doctor needs to map your brain to ensure the consistency of treatments. This will also help them determine when changes need to be made or if TMS can stop. You’ll be seated comfortably for the treatment and a normal session will usually last less than half an hour. Feel free to bring reading materials with you to help pass the time.
What after treatment looks like
As an outpatient service, there’s no stayover in the hospital after your TMS treatment since it’s non-evasive. You can go back about your daily business once you’re done. However, according to Mindpath Health, some people may experience small headaches after a session, so you might need a short break before returning to work. You may also feel a little sleepy once the treatment is done, but your doctor will likely advise you to skip taking a nap for an hour or so after your treatment to ensure better results. The Mayo Clinic noted that there’s also a chance of scalp sensitivity and lightheadedness. Some people have even reported minor muscle spasms, however, all of these side effects should fade within an hour or so.
If you experience side effects that persist, reach out to your doctor. If you regularly get headaches that won’t dissipate, your doctor may need to discontinue your treatments. You should also let your doctor know when you begin to notice a difference in your depression and anxiety symptoms.
Does TMS work?
As is often the case with medical treatments, TMS seems to work for many, but there’s no guarantee that it will work for everyone. Dr. Leuchter told UCLA Health, “We’re still trying to understand how some patients do two treatments and they’re well and for others, it takes 20 treatments before they start to feel better.” Treatment can vary wildly depending on the patient, similar to how some patients require a higher dosage of medications than others.
Want to learn more about your mental health? Visit our Patient Resources for articles, tips, and education from Mindpath Health’s expert clinicians. Visit our TMS page to learn more about how TMS can help you fight treatment-resistant depression.