Electroconvulsive therapy or ECT has been known for decades to be able to improve mood. In its earlier incarnations, this therapy's use (or misuse) earned it an evil reputation, but it is now considered a safe and effective treatment in bipolar disorder. It is mainly used against the depressive phase, but can be used during the manic phase as well. It has also been shown to be effective in preventing future episodes.

How Does ECT Fit In

Despite evidence of its effectiveness against bipolar disorder, ECT is considered more of an emergency or backup treatment than a front-line one. This usually means it is used when drugs are ineffective or an episode must be treated immediately.

How Does ECT Work

The patient is anesthetized and a small amount of electricity is sent through his or her brain, causing a minor seizure. This seizure, as one expert describes it, “reboots” the brain, leading to more normal function.

Who Can Take ECT

ECT is considered safe enough to be used on pregnant women and older patients and is often an option for people whose bipolar disorder has proven resistant to drug treatment or is causing severe episodes. It may be risky for people with heart problems.

Side Effects

A notable side effect of modern ECT is memory loss, usually limited to the time around the therapy session. It can also cause temporary confusion in the patient.

The Mayo Clinic also states on its website that there can be some temporary physical side effects as well. They include nausea, vomiting, headache, jaw pain, and muscle ache or muscle spasms.


Though effective, ECT is usually reserved as a last resort or for special circumstances. It must be done by a trained professional and is not available for home use.


ECT has been around since the early 20th century.

It is considered a very effective treatment for controlling and preventing bipolar episodes, but is usually used only as a last resort as therapy, medication, and lifestyle choices are commonly used for longer periods of time.

What The Expert Says

Dr, Soroya Bacchus, a psychiatrist practicing in California, says ECT is a very successful treatment and works when other treatment fails.

“Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is the most effective treatment option we have available, bar none,” she says. “It is literally like rebooting the brain.”