While not a traditional treatment, ECT can help reduce PTSD symptoms in some people, according to some studies.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event or situation. PTSD affects 6.8% of adults and 5% of adolescents in the United States, according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Medication and therapy ― often used in combination with each other ― are effective treatment options that can help reduce PTSD symptoms. Some research also suggests that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can also help reduce the symptoms of PTSD in people who don’t respond to traditional treatment options.

Ahead, we’ll explore how ECT is used for PTSD treatment, including the effectiveness and risks of this treatment option.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a psychiatric treatment that involves stimulating the brain with a series of electrical currents to induce a seizure.

During an ECT session, your doctor will start by administering general anesthesia and muscle relaxants. Next, they’ll attach electrodes to either the side of your head (bilateral ECT) or the top of your head and right temple (unilateral ECT).

Once your doctor has secured the electrodes to your head and scalp, they’ll administer a series of electrical “pulses” that trigger a very short seizure. Overall, the procedure takes roughly 5 to 10 minutes, with additional time for prep and recovery.

ECT is most commonly used to treat severe depression that hasn’t responded to other treatments. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), ECT significantly improves the symptoms of severe depression in roughly 80% of people who receive the treatment.

Some studies also suggest that electroconvulsive therapy may help improve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, because ECT isn’t a traditional approach to PTSD treatment, research exploring its effectiveness is limited.

Most of the research on electroconvulsive therapy explores the effectiveness of this treatment for severe depression. However, several small studies suggest that ECT may also help improve symptoms in people with PTSD or co-occurring PTSD and depression.

One smaller study from 2021 explored the use of ECT alongside memory reactivation in people with both severe depression and PTSD. Memory reactivation is a treatment approach that can improve certain symptoms in people with PTSD, like dissociation.

Results of the study showed that ECT was able to help improve PTSD symptoms in study participants directly after treatment. According to the researchers, participants continued to see these improvements at the 3-month mark after treatment, as well.

Another case study published the same year explored the impact of ECT on trauma-related nightmares ― among other symptoms ― in a 39-year-old combat veteran with PTSD and depression. In this case, ECT was able to significantly improve both depression and PTSD symptoms after six treatments.

In a more recent review from 2023, researchers analyzed five studies on the effectiveness of ECT for reducing PTSD symptoms. Some of the literature mentioned above was also included in this review.

According to the researchers, ECT was able to significantly reduce intrusion, avoidance, and hyperarousal in participants with PTSD. However, although the impact was significant, the effect was relatively small, and ultimately, the researchers believe that more studies are needed.

Can ECT cause PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a complex condition, and there are many types of traumatic events that can cause someone to develop PTSD.

Currently, there’s no research to suggest that ECT can cause PTSD, or that PTSD is a side effect of ECT. In fact, research suggests the opposite — that ECT might be a beneficial treatment option for people living with the symptoms of PTSD

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One of the benefits of using ECT to treat mental health conditions is that it’s a fairly quick-acting treatment. Unlike medications and therapy, which can take longer to reduce symptoms, most people who receive ECT see improvements in just a few short sessions.

Still, there are some potential side effects of ECT, including:

These side effects are usually temporary, only lasting from a few minutes to a few hours after treatment.

However, there are some rare side effects of ECT, including:

  • prolonged seizures
  • changes in blood pressure
  • changes in heart rate
  • respiratory symptoms
  • long-term memory problems

Given the risk of side effects and because there are more traditional treatment options for PTSD, ECT generally isn’t considered a first-line treatment option for this condition. However, when someone with PTSD doesn’t respond to other treatment options, the benefits of ECT may outweigh the potential risks and side effects.

Who should not get ECT?

Electroconvulsive therapy is generally considered a safe, effective option for people with severe treatment-resistant mental health conditions. However, it may not be safe for people who have the following health conditions:

If you have any of the conditions listed above, your doctor will likely discuss the risks and benefits of this procedure with you before moving forward with treatment.

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PTSD can cause significant impairment in someone’s day-to-day life, but treatment can help reduce symptoms and improve overall quality of life. Many people with PTSD will respond to medications and therapy, but for those who don’t, electroconvulsive therapy may be another option.

If you live with PTSD and are interested in learning more about this treatment approach, consider reaching out to your doctor or mental health professional to discuss your options.