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Learning About Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

What is ECT?

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a treatment that sends brief electric pulses to the brain. Experts don't know exactly how ECT helps relieve problems in the brain. But it seems to work by changing brain chemicals.

ECT is used to treat severe depression. It's also used for other conditions, such as Parkinson's disease, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It sometimes helps people after other treatments have failed.

For mental health conditions, ECT is usually given along with medicine, counselling, or both.

How is ECT done?

Before ECT, your treatment team gives you medicines to relax your muscles and make you sleep. They place electrodes on your head. When you are asleep, brief electric pulses are sent through the electrodes. This creates a short seizure in the brain. You don't feel or remember it.

ECT usually takes several treatments to work. To start, you will likely have it about 3 times a week. Then, to help maintain the benefit, your doctor may schedule you for weekly or monthly treatments.

What can you expect after ECT?

Because of the effects of anesthesia, you may not remember the procedure. As with medicine, there can be side effects from ECT.

After you wake up, you may have some confusion, nausea, a headache, or jaw pain. These effects may last a few hours. You may also notice some short-term memory loss. This should slowly get better within several weeks.

Ask your doctor when you can drive after having an ECT treatment.

It's possible to have long-term memory loss after ECT. For some people, memory returns. But for others, there are lasting gaps in memory.

You'll need to have follow-up treatment with medicine or maintenance ECT. This will reduce the risk of relapse.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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