Many people confuse Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). This is understandable but at the end of the day, the treatments are very different from one another.
Both are forms of brain stimulation used to treat depression, but this is where the similarities end. While ECT uses an electrical current to stimulate the entire brain, TMS uses a magnetic field to stimulate a particular part of the brain. These differences help account for the different side effects of the two treatments.
ECT has been in continuous use worldwide for over 80 years. There are few treatments in all of medicine that can make such a claim. Despite its long record of safety and efficacy, ECT remains poorly understood by the general public. ECT is a modern, mainstream medical procedure and roughly 100,000 patients receive ECT in the United States every year.
Because the treatment requires general anesthesia, ECT must be done in a hospital setting. As a result, it is often reserved for patients with severe, life-threatening depression. During ECT an electrical current is applied to the scalp to intentionally cause a controlled seizure. The modern ECT technique has significantly decreased or eliminated most of the troublesome side effects previously associated with this treatment. However, it can still cause memory loss as a side effect.
TMS does not use an electrical current itself but instead uses a powerful, MRI-strength magnetic field to cause a very localized electrical current in the brain. This current does not spread throughout the brain and does not cause a seizure. As a result, TMS does not require any anesthesia or sedation. It has very little risk for side effects, most of which are mild and temporary. Patients can drive themselves to and from treatment with minimal disruption of their daily routine.