If you are struggling to get relief from your current medications, you may be considering Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for treating depression. But, is TMS painful?
TMS uses electromagnetic pulses to promote symptom relief for depression patients, but a TMS treatment session is vastly less invasive than other treatments. This approach relies on very small electrical currents that are induced by a magnetic field. Magnetic energy passes through the skin and skull painlessly, and a person is awake and alert during therapy.
TMS has very limited adverse effects and is also considered very safe, especially when precautions are taken before and during treatment.
Most patients experience mild discomfort during the first few sessions of a treatment program, such as a minor headache or lightheadedness. The most common minor side effect is scalp discomfort, which involves a knocking or tapping sensation on the skull. Adjustments to the stimulation settings help to reduce discomfort, while the scalp desensitizes to the tapping sensation of the magnetic coil over time.
Other side effects include twitching in facial muscles during treatment sessions or a "TMS dip." This is a temporary worsening of depression or anxiety symptoms about halfway into treatment, as the brain adjusts to changes. Like mild headaches and scalp discomfort, a TMS dip is also temporary and fades away over the treatment course.
The biggest risk of TMS therapy is probably its small chance of a seizure. This is usually in the case of people who have had a head injury or a history of seizures. A treatment provider may discourage a person to receive TMS therapy in some cases, where treatment can place risk on the patient. These cases include:
TMS treatments are extremely safe for the treatment of depression and other mental health concerns. It does not come with the side effects of traditional antidepressant medications and is a safe option for anyone suffering from depression who has not responded to other treatments.
A CDC report estimates that 13.2% of adults in the United States used antidepressant medications during 2015-2018. TMS excludes someone suffering from depression from experiencing fatigue, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, sedation, weight gain, dry mouth, nausea, or any other physical effects caused by medications. TMS also does not lead to withdrawal symptoms associated with antidepressant medications.
In comparison to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), TMS is far less invasive as a person does not have to take muscle relaxants, undergo general anesthesia, or be sedated. In multiple studies where some major depression patients received sham TMS and others real TMS, groups who received real treatment showed improvements in depression symptoms and overall quality of life.
TMS functions based on electromagnetic induction. A magnetic coil with electric current produces magnetic pulses, which flow through the skull to produce a field of electricity underneath it. In this way, brief currents from magnetic stimulation reach brain cells or neurons that are underactive.
The excitation of neurons causes them to produce more neurotransmitters, thereby affecting communication among neurons and brain connectivity. A change in the connection among neurons can alter the way the brain responds. By targeting areas of the patient's brain that are responsible for mood regulation, TMS therapy is used in treating depressive symptoms or in the treatment of mood disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Before a TMS treatment session, a doctor will review a person's medical history to recommend this treatment. The treatment follows a few simple steps and allows a person to continue normal daily activities afterward without any pain, including driving.
First, a person will sit in a reclining chair. A TMS technician will take measurements to ensure the correct coil positioning over the patient's head and the patient's motor threshold is tested. Next, therapy will begin. A person may hear a clicking sound as stimulation begins, or experience a tapping sensation underneath the coil. After waiting for the therapy to finish, a person goes about their day.
TMS therapy usually involves sessions of thirty to forty minutes, and patients have to attend five sessions a week for six weeks. Some TMS treatments may be shorter or longer in duration, depending on what is being treated.
Even though one of the most popular questions from patients is “Does TMS hurt?” many people also wonder if it is safe. TMS therapy is one of the FDA-approved depression treatments, especially in the case of major depressive disorder, and there are many ways in which it proves safe.
While antidepressant medications are ingested and have systemic reactions throughout the body, TMS treatment does not. Most people only experience mild discomfort as a side effect of TMS.
TMS therapy has been systematically evaluated for its effects on memory. Unlike other brain stimulation methods or antidepressant medicines, it is not related to memory loss. In fact, clinical trials and other studies have demonstrated TMS therapy as an aid for memory, boosting memory performance and learning.
Studies on TMS therapy have provided no evidence related to concentration or any other cognitive decline or brain-related damage. No negative long-term effects have been found, and the magnetic fields that are used in TMS are similar to what is used in MRI scans. Complete TMS therapy uses just a fraction of magnetism than what is used in one MRI scan, making it even safer.
TMS has also been used in treating alcoholism and drug addiction. Here, as well as when treating depression, it has proven safe once again as it does not require the use of other drugs. This eliminates a possible drug interaction or the development of an addiction to other substances. It also aids in undergoing withdrawal symptoms less painfully.
GIA Chicago is a mental health center specializing in TMS therapy. Our world-class facilities, cutting-edge technologies, and experienced staff will ensure that you or a loved one receives the best possible care as you take a step toward better mental wellness.
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