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Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure in which electric currents are passed through the brain, deliberately triggering a brief seizure. Electroconvulsive therapy seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can immediately reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses. It often works when other treatments are unsuccessful.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electroshock, is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in anesthetized patients for therapeutic effect. Its mode of action is unknown. Today, ECT is most often recommended for use as a treatment for severe depression which has not responded to other treatment, and is also used in the treatment of mania and catatonia. It was first introduced in the 1938 and gained widespread use as a form of treatment in the 1940s and 1950s.
Informed consent is a standard of modern electroconvulsive therapy. According to the Surgeon General, involuntary treatment is uncommon in the United States and is typically only used in cases of great extremity, and only when all other treatment options have been exhausted and the use of ECT is believed to be a potentially life saving treatment. However, caution must be exercised in interpreting this assertion as, in an American context, there does not appear to have been any attempt to survey at national level the usage of ECT as either an elective or involuntary procedure in almost twenty years. In one of the few jurisdictions where recent statistics on ECT usage are available, a national audit of ECT by the Scottish ECT Accreditation Network indicated that 77% of patients who received the treatment in 2008 were capable of giving informed consent
Electroconvulsive therapy can differ in its application in three ways: electrode placement, frequency of treatments, and the electrical waveform of the stimulus. These three forms of application have significant differences in both adverse side effects and positive outcomes. After treatment, drug therapy is usually continued, and some patients receive continuation/maintenance ECT. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, drug therapy is continued during ECT.
The treatment involves placing electrodes on the temples, on one or both sides of the patient’s head, and delivering a small electrical current across the brain, with the patient sedated or under anaesthetic. The aim is to produce a seizure lasting up to a minute, after which the brain activity should return to normal. Patients may have one or more treatment a week, and perhaps more than a dozen treatments in total.
Although ECT has been used since the 1930s, there is still no generally accepted theory to explain how it works. One of the most popular ideas is that it causes an alteration in how the brain responds to chemical signals or neurotransmitters.
Why & when it is done?
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can provide rapid, significant improvements in severe symptoms of a number of mental health conditions. It may be an effective treatment in someone who is suicidal, for instance, or end an episode of severe mania.
ECT is used to treat:
*Severe depression, particularly when accompanied by detachment from reality (psychosis), a desire to commit suicide or refusal to eat.
*Treatment-resistant depression, long-term depression that doesn’t improve with medications or other treatments.
*Schizophrenia, particularly when accompanied by psychosis, a desire to commit suicide or hurt someone else, or refusal to eat.
*Severe mania, a state of intense euphoria, agitation or hyperactivity that occurs as part of bipolar disorder. Other signs of mania include impaired decision making, impulsive or risky behavior, substance abuse and psychosis.
*Catatonia, characterized by lack of movement, fast or strange movements, lack of speech, and other symptoms. It’s associated with schizophrenia and some other psychiatric disorders. In some cases, catatonia is caused by a medical illness.
Electroconvulsive therapy is sometimes used as a last-resort treatment for:
#Treatment-resistant obsessive compulsive disorder, severe obsessive compulsive disorder that doesn’t improve with medications or other treatments
#Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and certain other conditions that cause movement problems or seizures
*Tourette syndrome that doesn’t improve with medications or other treatments
ECT may be a good treatment option when medications aren’t tolerated or other forms of therapy haven’t worked. In some cases ECT is used:
#During pregnancy, when medications can’t be taken because they might harm the developing fetus
#In older adults who can’t tolerate drug side effects
#In people who prefer ECT treatments over taking medications
#When ECT has been successful in the past
Patients are given short-acting anaesthetics, muscle relaxants and breathe pure oxygen during the short procedure in order to minimise the risks. However, although ECT is much safer than it was, there are still side effects to the treatment. The most common are headache, stiffness, confusion and temporary memory loss on awaking from the treatment – some of these can be reduced by placing electrodes only on one side of the head. Memory loss can be permanent in a few cases, and the spasms associated with the seizure can cause fractured vertebrae and tooth damage. However, the recommended use of muscle relaxant nowadays makes the latter a very rare occurrence. Patients can also experience numbness in the fingers and toes.
The death rate from ECT used to be quoted as one for every 1,000 patients, but with smaller amounts of electric current used in modern treatments, accompanied by more safety techniques, this has been reduced to as little as four or five in 100,000 patients.
A common argument against ECT is that it destroys brain cells, with experiments conducted on animals in the 1940s often cited as evidence. However, modern studies have yet to reproduce these findings in the human brain.
Some activists, however, still campaign against the widespread use of ECT in psychiatry, quoting those cases which have resulted in long-term damage or even death, whether because of the built-in chance of problems, or through errors by doctors.
Experts say that given the correct staff training, and when used for the right clinical conditions, ECT can ‘dramatically’ benefit the patient. An audit of ECT in Scotland between February 1996 and August 1999 said concerns about unacceptable side effects, effectiveness of the treatment and disproportionate use on elderly people were ‘largely without foundation’.
It said that in nearly three quarters of cases people with depressive illness showed ‘a definite improvement’ after ECT. Women were more likely to receive the treatment than men, but the auditors said this was because they were twice as likely to suffer from depression. Only 12 per cent of patients who got ECT were aged over 75. However, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has admitted that in the past the treatment has been administered by untrained, unsupervised junior doctors. However, modern guidelines have changed this and ECTAS (ECT Accreditation Services) exist to check that such treatment is being given safely and efficiently.
Guidelines on ECT from NICE (2003) recommend that it’s used only to achieve rapid and short-term improvement of severe symptoms after an adequate trial of other treatment. options has proven ineffective and/or when the condition is considered to be potentially life-threatening, in individuals with:
•Severe depressive illness
•Prolonged or severe manic episode
NICE also says that ‘valid consent should be obtained in all cases where the individual has the ability to grant or refuse consent. The decision to use ECT should be made jointly by the individual and the clinician(s) responsible for treatment, on the basis of an informed discussion. This discussion should be enabled by the provision of full and appropriate information about the general risks associated with ECT and about the risks and potential benefits specific to that individual. Consent should be obtained without pressure or coercion, which may occur as a result of the circumstances and clinical setting, and the individual should be reminded of their right to withdraw consent at any point. There should be strict adherence to recognised guidelines about consent and the involvement of patient advocates and/or carers to facilitate informed discussion is strongly encouraged.’
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- FDA panel deems electroshock devices high risk (cnn.com)
- What Kind of Therapy is Out There? (try-therapy.com)
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