Modern electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is generally considered a safe and effective treatment for severe, chronic depression and treatment-resistant depression, although it may occasionally be used to treat other conditions as well. Despite its general safety and efficacy, like psychiatric medications, it carries with it a number of side effects.
Your doctor or psychiatrist should go through each of these risks with you prior to the ECT procedure taking place, and answer any questions you may have about these risks. If your doctor fails to do so, that may be a sign they minimize the risks associated with ECT.
1. Memory Loss
Memory loss is the primary side effect associated with ECT treatment. Most people experience what’s called retrograde amnesia, which is a loss of memory of events leading up to and including the treatment itself. Some people’s memory loss is longer and greater with ECT. Some have trouble recalling events that occurred during the weeks leading up to treatment, or the weeks after treatment. Others lose memories of events and experiences in their past.
Memory loss generally improves within a few weeks after ECT treatment. As with psychiatric medications, no professional or doctor can tell you for certain what kind of memory loss you will experience, but virtually all patients experience some memory loss. Sometimes the memory loss in some patients is permanent.
2. Concentration and Attention Problems
Some people with have ECT treatments complain of ongoing problems with concentration and attention, much like a person with attention deficit disorder. While in most people this clears up within a few weeks of treatment, you may find it harder to concentrate on tasks or reading that you could previously do before ECT treatment began.
3. General Confusion
Many people who undergo the electroconvulsive therapy find that they experience a period of confusion after the procedure has been completed. You may forget why you’re in the hospital, or even what hospital you’re in. For most people, this confusion fades after a few hours, but can last as long as a few days after the ECT treatment. Older adults tend to have a greater problem with confusion than middle-aged or younger adults.
4. Other Side Effects
Similar to some psychiatric medications, some people undergoing ECT may experience physical side effects such as nausea, headaches, muscle aches or spasms, and vomiting. These are temporary side effects that nearly always go away within a few hours or days after treatment.
5. Other Risks
ECT is a medical procedure that can only be performed by a qualified physician or psychiatrist. Because general anesthesia is administered, electroconvulsive therapy carries with it similar risks that any medical procedure using anesthesia does. Hospital staff and an anesthesiologist monitor your vital signs during the procedure — including heart rate and blood pressure — to watch for any signs that you may be having difficulty with the treatment.
Patients with a history of heart problems generally should not undergo ECT treatment, because the risk associated with receiving the electrical stimulation is greater.