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Can TMS Really Help with Mental Illness?

Around 14.8 million adults in the US, 6.7% of the country’s total population, suffer from major depression at any given time. Sadly, antidepressants, medication, and psychotherapy don’t always work for everyone who takes them.

Traditional Depression Treatment

Researchers estimate 28% to 33% of people with major depression experience an improvement after treatment with an antidepressant.

There are several depression treatments that have been available for years, including:

  • Antidepressant drugs
  • Augmentation with second antidepressant medications
  • Psychotherapy
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Second-generation antipsychotics

However, in October 2008, the FDA approved a new depression treatment called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy. This new approach can help patients suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) who don’t respond well to antidepressant drugs.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

TMS is a simple non-invasive procedure that utilizes magnetic pulses. These magnetic fields help stimulate the nerve brain cells, improving depression symptoms. However, doctors usually only recommend using TMS when all other methods failed.

What happens during rTMS?

In a TMS therapy session, a TMS physician places an electromagnet coil on the patient’s scalp near the forehead or in the frontal lobe. The machine will then send out electromagnetic pulses from the scalp and into the nerve brain cells. The rapid succession of magnetic pulses treatment is called repetitive TMS or rTMS. It helps activate parts of the brain that have decreased activity, which in turn improves mood. Experts associate this inactive area of the brain with depression, and the magnetic pulses stimulate that region of the brain.  

This new method involves placing a helmet on the patient. This helmet sends the aforementioned electromagnetic pulses. To effectively treat depression, patients may need to undergo 5 sessions per week for 6 weeks. Each session takes about 40 minutes in the doctor’s office. Because treatment isn’t a major procedure, patients can resume their daily routine immediately after each session.

Undergoing Treatment

As good as it may seem, rTMS is not for everyone. The machine acts like an MRI machine and can cause damage to metal or any metallic-sensitive materials. rTMS may cause the materials to move, overheat, and even malfunction. Because of this, patients who have any of the following cannot undergo rTMS treatment:

  • Aneurysm coils
  • Bullet fragments located near the head
  • Deep brain stimulators
  • Electrodes used to monitor brain activity
  • Facial tattoos with metallic ink
  • Metallic implants
  • Other metal devices or object implanted in the body particularly in the near the head
  • Stents in the neck or brain

Further, rTMS doctors need to check the overall health condition of each patient. Some exams that the patient needs to pass include the following:

  • Psychiatric evaluation
  • Physical exams & laboratory testing
  • Patients taking any medications like over-the-counter drugs and other supplements
  • People who may have coexisting mental disorder
  • Patients with a family history of seizures or epilepsy
  • Any brain damage suffered from injury or other illnesses
  • Severe episodes of headaches
  • other medical conditions

Still Needs Further Studies

Although the full concept of rTMS remains vague, the stimulation has proven to be an effective tool in easing depression symptoms. rTMS treatment may involve continuous treatment until the patient is symptom-free and researchers are optimistic that symptoms will rarely return.

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