Understanding Electroconvulsive Therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is sometimes called shock therapy. This may sound painful, but ECT doesn’t hurt. It’s often the safest and best treatment for severe depression. It can treat other mental disorders as well.

What is electroconvulsive therapy?

ECT is used to treat people who are very depressed. It’s mainly used when other treatments, such as antidepressant medicines, have failed. Often it may relieve feelings of sadness and despair after 2 to 4 treatments.

Common symptoms of major depression

Symptoms of major depression include:

  • Feeling a deep sadness that doesn’t go away

  • Losing all pleasure in life

  • Feeling hopeless or helpless

  • Feeling guilty

  • Sleeping more or less than normal

  • Eating more or less than normal

  • Having headaches or stomachaches, or other pains that don’t go away

  • Feeling nervous, “empty,” or worthless

  • Crying a great deal

  • Thinking or talking about suicide or death

How is ECT therapy done?

Before an ECT treatment, you’ll be given anesthesia to keep you pain-free. You’ll also be given medicine to make you sleep, relax your muscles and control your heart rate. Your healthcare provider then places electrodes on your head. You may have one above each temple (bilateral ECT). Or you may have electrodes on one temple and on your forehead (unilateral ECT). While you are asleep, your brain is stimulated very briefly with an electric current. This causes a seizure, usually lasting less than a minute. Because you are under anesthesia, your body will not move even as your brain goes through great changes.

What are the risks?

When done properly, ECT is quite safe. Right after the treatment, you may be confused. This often lasts for less than half an hour. You may have a headache or stiff muscles. But these symptoms often go away quickly. A more serious possible side effect is memory loss. Commonly, people have short-term (temporary) trouble remembering information that they learned recently. And they may have little recall of the time when they received treatment. Less commonly, people may have long-lasting (permanent) spotty recall of major past events. In rare cases, there may be memory loss for larger blocks of time.

Looking to the future

In most cases, ECT doesn’t cure depression. But it can improve symptoms for a period of time. You may need a series of ECT treatments to continue feeling the benefit. You may also need to take antidepressant medicines to help prevent symptoms from returning. But with ongoing treatment, you can have a full and healthy life.


  • The National Institute of Mental Health  866-615-6464  www.nimh.nih.gov

  • Mental Health America  800-969-6642  www.nmha.org