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How does ECT work?

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After receiving an intravenous anesthetic and a muscle relaxant, an electroconvulsive therapy patient receives a small amount of an electric current passed through electrode pads on one or both sides of the head, which causes a seizure lasting less than a minute, explains Mayo Clinic. While the exact reasons for its effectiveness are unknown, as of 2015, it appears that ECT changes brain chemistry to rapidly reverse the symptoms of some mental illnesses, often within as few as six treatments.

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The ECT procedure is performed on an outpatient basis or while an individual is hospitalized, and takes approximately 10 minutes, according to Mayo Clinic. Most patients have two to three treatments a week for a total of six to 12 treatments. ECT effectively treats severe depression that does not respond to other forms of treatment or medications; the intense mania of bipolar disorder; the catatonia associated with schizophrenia; psychotic breaks from reality; and suicidal ideation. The procedure treats the agitation and aggression exhibited by individuals with dementia and can be appropriate for a pregnant woman for whom medications are contraindicated for the protection of the fetus.

Although modern ECT is generally safe, common side effects include nausea, muscle ache and headache on the day of the procedure, notes Mayo Clinic. There may be temporary confusion, especially in older adults, and some memory loss that usually resolves within a couple of months after the final treatment.

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