Electroconvulsive Therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is popularly known as electroshock therapy. This treatment induces a seizure by delivering an electrical current directly into a person’s body. It has historically been used to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions, and its use remains extremely controversial.

History of ECT
Medical practitioners have been inducing seizures to treat a variety of illnesses for hundreds of years. Modern electroconvulsive therapy was invented in the 1940s, and the procedure has undergone several changes designed to make it safer since that time. In the mid-20th century, patients in psychiatric hospitals frequently underwent electroconvulsive therapy against their will. The backlash against this practice resulted in a significant decline in its usage.

In recent years, however ECT has made a comeback, and many people report that it is particularly effective at treating depression. The effects of ECT on the brain, however, have not been directly studied on people before and after ECT because of potential ethical problems of such a study. ECT’s effectiveness has been demonstrated in animals, but the exact reason why seizures can produce an improvement in some people is not known. Moreover, the results are not predictable and some people experience no improvement from the treatment.

When is ECT Used?
In contemporary psychiatry, patients must consent to ECT. It is only recommended in cases where other forms of treatment are ineffective. People with schizophrenia, severe depression, Tourette syndrome, and obsessive-compulsive disorder may experience improved functioning after ECT. The most common side effect of ECT is memory loss. This memory loss may be temporary or permanent, and the degree to which a person loses his or her memory cannot be predicted. People may also experience medical complications due to the effects of the electricity on the body. Heart problems are among the most significant risks.

How Does ECT Work?
Patients are given anesthesia and muscle relaxants so that they are not awake and do not feel pain during the procedure. A doctor may then place a bite guard in the patient’s mouth to prevent him or her from biting through their tongue. A doctor then attaches electrodes to the patient’s head and delivers an electrical current to induce a seizure. The seizure may last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Patients typically receive six to twelve treatments spaced closely together.


  1. Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2010, July 09). Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/electroconvulsive-therapy/MY00129

Last Updated: 08-6-2015

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  • Christine


    March 17th, 2017 at 11:00 PM

    Husband has Frontal Temporal Degeneration, dementia. Alzheimer’s now mentioned and currently on psychotic meds for behavior issues and psychosis. ECT was mentioned to research by care manager while he was hospitalized, but it was never prescribed. This was an easy article for me to understand with its possible side effects. Thank you!!

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