ECT can seem like something out of science fiction, but it actually has decades of studies to show how effective it can be in reducing depression symptoms.

Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions across the globe, affecting tens of millions of people in the United States alone. Depression isn’t just a mental health condition — it’s also a significant source of disability for many people who have it.

When someone has severe depression, it can be difficult to find treatment options that work or work quickly. However, there’s one option that has proven to be a quick and effective treatment, even in people with treatment-resistant depression: electroshock therapy (ECT).

Below, we’ll explore the role of ECT treatment for depression, including some of the benefits, side effects, and other important information you need to know about this treatment option.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as electroshock therapy, is a medical procedure used to treat certain mental health conditions, including depression.

During an ECT session, mild electrical currents travel to the brain through small electrodes placed on different areas of the scalp. As these currents stimulate the brain, they cause a temporary change in the brain’s activity — in other words, a seizure.

Because this procedure happens under general anesthesia, the person is not aware of what’s happening and does not experience any pain or discomfort.

Although electroconvulsive therapy may seem like a drastic option, this procedure is extremely effective for depression. In fact, decades of research have shown that ECT remains one of the most effective treatment options for people with major depression.

One research review published in 2022 explored the safety and effectiveness of ketamine versus ECT for treating major depressive disorder (MDD). According to the results, which included six clinical trials spanning 340 participants, ECT was more effective than ketamine at improving depressive symptoms.

However, the researchers noted that both treatment options had their own advantages and disadvantages.

Another large research review from 2023 also investigated the effectiveness of ECT in adults with MDD. Results of the analysis showed that ECT used alone and alongside antidepressants was effective at reducing relapse and recurrence of MDD.

Researchers still aren’t entirely sure exactly why ECT is so effective for reducing depressive symptoms. However, some of the more popular theories involve changes in neurotransmitters, hormones, brain anatomy, and brain cell regeneration, to name a few.

Electroconvulsive therapy may be an effective treatment option for people with severe depression, but as with any medical procedure, there are risks.

Some of the most commonly reported side effects of ECT include:

Many of the symptoms mentioned above are typically mild and usually only last for a few hours after treatment. However, short-term and long-term memory loss and changes may last for several months for some people.

Other rare but serious side effects of ECT include prolonged seizures, heart rate changes, and other effects from anesthesia or medications used during the procedure. Although extremely rare, the risk of death from ECT or ECT complications is roughly .01%.

When you live with depression, the goal of treatment is to improve your symptoms and make it easier for you to function in your day-to-day life.

Some of the most common treatment options for depression — like therapy and medication — can take weeks or months to start working. However, one of the major benefits of ECT for depression is that it’s a quick-acting treatment with long lasting clinical effects.

According to research, the effects of ECT can last upward of a few years, although the results vary depending on the type of ECT, number of sessions, and other factors.

ECT therapy for depression generally includes multiple sessions per week that take place over the course of several weeks.

Sessions occur 2-3 times a week, and most people start to see improvements in as little as six sessions of ECT. However, people with more severe symptoms or other recurring mood disorders may need more sessions or choose to continue their ECT for longer.

Since ECT requires multiple sessions, one potential downside of this treatment option for depression is the cost. One 2018 study found that average out-of-pocket treatment costs for ECT ranged from $300 to upward of $1,000 per session.

With that said, because ECT has a long history of use as an effective treatment, most major insurance plans — as well as Medicaid and Medicare — may cover ECT for depression.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a medical procedure that involves the use of electrical stimulation to relieve the symptoms of depression and other mood disorders. ECT is one of the most effective treatments for depression, especially for symptoms that haven’t responded to other treatments.

If you’re interested in trying ECT for severe or treatment-resistant depression, consider reaching out to your doctor to learn more about your options.