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How is TMS Therapy Used for Treating Depression?

How is TMS Therapy Used for Treating Depression?

20 Apr 2021

Depression can be stubborn. It’s despairing to do all the “right” things and take all the “right” medications, only to find that your symptoms of depression just won’t go away. It’s easy to start feeling hopeless – like nothing will ever work, and that you’re doomed to feel this low forever.

If this has been your experience with depression, then you may be interested in learning about TMS therapy, or transcranial magnetic stimulation. This innovative medical intervention interacts with the brain itself to relieve symptoms of depression, even after nothing else has worked.

What is TMS Therapy, Exactly?

TMS therapy can sound like something out of a science fiction movie when you first hear about it, but it’s an evidence-based treatment method that has helped thousands of people recover from lifelong, treatment-resistant depression. It’s sometimes called rTMS therapy, with the “r” standing for “repeated.”

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is exactly that: electromagnetic coils are applied to the frontal lobes of your head, and the magnetic fields stimulate the nerve cells of certain areas of your brain. These coils are similar to the magnets used in MRI scans. TMS therapy is a non-invasive, pain-free treatment, although there can be some minor side effects, which we’ll talk about later.

Although TMS therapy isn’t usually people’s first choice in treatment for depression, it has been shown to be effective for reducing depression symptoms. Especially for people who have been unsuccessfully trying to recover from depression for a long time with therapy and medication, TMS therapy may be something you want to consider as your next step.

What Does TMS Therapy Do to The Brain?

The exact science of why TMS works for depression symptoms is still not completely understood – hopefully, the ongoing research will soon start to give us answers about the exact science of why it’s so effective.

During a TMS session, your doctor will place an electromagnetic coil against your scalp, near your forehead. These coils deliver repeated magnetic pulses to the area of your brain that is responsible for managing your mood – in short, the part of your brain that stops working properly when you’re battling depression.

TMS therapy doesn’t affect your entire brain, so you don’t need to worry about changes to your personality or way of thinking. The magnetic pulses are targeted to specific areas of your brain, and only reach a couple of inches in. This ensures that only certain brain cells (which are linked to depression) are activated with treatment.

The Benefits of TMS Therapy for Depression

When we look at how TMS therapy interacts with the brain, it isn’t hard to understand how beneficial it is for people struggling with depression.

When we have depression, our brains don’t work like they’re supposed to. The levels of neurotransmitters in our brain, like serotonin and dopamine, become imbalanced. The electromagnetic stimulation that’s delivered to our brain cells during TMS therapy is thought to fix this imbalance and, in turn, relieve the symptoms of depression.

TMS therapy stimulates the prefrontal cortex; when this part of the brain isn’t working as it should, we experience symptoms of depression like low appetite and fatigue. The magnetic pulses increase the activity in this area of the brain, getting neurotransmitters to fire properly and counteracting the effects of depression.

How Successful is TMS Therapy for Depression?

Now that you understand the science behind TMS therapy, the question you’re probably asking yourself is: but does it really work? Can having your brain stimulated in this way really make your depression go away?

There is clear evidence that indicates that yes, TMS therapy is a successful treatment option for depression. Research has shown that around 50 to 60% of people who complete TMS treatment experience a significant decrease in their depression symptoms. Considering that most people who go through TMS therapy do so because more traditional treatments haven’t worked at all, that percentage isn’t insignificant.

TMS Therapy for Other Mental Health Disorders

The FDA has only approved TMS therapy for treating depression, but research is being conducted on whether it could be effective on a slew of other disorders- and the results are promising.

Studies have shown that TMS therapy might be an effective treatment, used alongside other techniques, to reduce the symptoms of anxiety-related disorders like OCD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and PTSD. There’s also promising research that shows that it could help treat Alzheimer’s disease.

What to Expect in a TMS Therapy Session

If you’ve never tried anything like this before, then it’s completely understandable to feel nervous before your first TMS therapy session. Knowing what to expect can reduce our anxiety about new experiences; we’ll walk you through exactly what to expect in a TMS therapy session so you can feel confident knowing what you’re going into.

What Happens in a TMS Therapy Session?

Before your first TMS therapy session, your doctor will measure your head so they can personalize the settings on the machine as well as know where to put the electromagnetic coils. Before you begin your treatment, you’ll be asked to remove anything made of metal from your body, including jewelry. You’ll also be given earplugs, because the magnetic pulses make a loud clicking noise. The doctor may use the thumb twitch method to find your “marker” or the area of the brain that needs treatment. This method is just like it sounds – the doctor will adjust the machine until your thumb twitches on its own, which signals the machine is positioned just right for your brain. 

Then, your doctor will put the coils where they’ve determined they should be placed, and start the treatment. The TMS therapy machine will deliver magnetic pulses through the coils to your brain. The pulses won’t be painful, but you will hear a clicking sound and feel a tapping sensation on your forehead where the coils are placed.

This will go on for around half an hour to an hour. Because you haven’t been put under any anesthesia, you should be able to drive yourself home afterward. You’ll have to come back the very next day for another round of treatment; TMS therapy requires 5 days a week of treatment for 6 weeks.

Is TMS Therapy Safe?

Even though TMS therapy is a non-invasive procedure, it’s natural to be worried about whether or not it’s truly safe to magnetically stimulate your brain in this way.

You can breathe easy going into your first session; TMS therapy is considered to be safe, and people who’ve gone through it say it isn’t painful. It’s sometimes compared to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), but this comparison is inaccurate; ECT is much more intense and requires sedation. TMS therapy is so non-invasive that you don’t even need to be under anesthesia while receiving it; you’ll be completely awake for the entirety of your treatment.

Although TMS therapy has been found to be safe, there can be some side effects that you may experience after your treatment, including:

  • mild headaches  
  • pain on the scalp where the coils were placed
  • drowsiness
  • feeling lightheaded
  • tingling or twitching in the face

There is also a 0.1% risk of a seizure while or after receiving TMS therapy. In general, though, TMS therapy is considered to be a safe treatment for depression.

Interested in Receiving TMS Therapy?

If standard treatments like psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication haven’t worked for you, then you might be interested in trying TMS therapy.

At Genesis Behavioral Health, we treat you as a “whole person,” taking your mind, body, and spirit into account as we develop a treatment plan for you. We offer TMS therapy from a team that is well versed in the processes and procedures of the treatment, so you’ll be able to rest easy knowing you’re in good hands. 

If TMS is something you’re considering, we are here to help. For any questions or concerns about the process or to get started, call us (210) 404-9696 or contact our intake department.

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Ted Williams, MD

Read about the author Ted Williams, MD