Understanding TMS Therapy

Sometimes medication and therapy are not effective in treating depression. In these situations, the patient and their mental health professional may decide to try TMS therapy as an alternative. TMS, aka Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, uses electromagnetic waves to stimulate certain areas of the patient’s brain.

This type of therapy can seem intimidating to those unfamiliar with it. They may confuse it with electroconvulsive therapy, which can have significant side effects, including memory loss. It is important to understand that it is a non-invasive procedure with few side effects. It is also only used in cases where no other intervention has worked.

When did doctors start using TMS?

Research around TMS began in the 1980s. This research centered on which areas of the brain controlled certain functions and which areas might be not functioning correctly in mood disorders such as depression.

Specialists studied TMS and its effects for many years before it was available for use with the general public. It was finally approved for use by the FDA in 2008 and is now a standard treatment used successfully around the country.

Can TMS Treat Anything Else?

Currently, TMS is used primarily for depression patients who do not respond to other treatments. There is research underway, however, to see whether TMS can work effectively on other disorders, including ADHD, schizophrenia, and OCD, to name a few.

Types of TMS

The technology behind TMS has evolved since the therapy’s early days and professionals now use three different types of TMS. The first is traditional TMS, which involves sending an uninterrupted signal to the brain. The second, Repetitive TMS or rTMS sends rapid, repeating individual signals to the brain. Finally, Deep TMS (dTMS) sends electromagnetic waves 4 centimeters into the brain, which is much deeper than the other types of TMS do.

How TMS Works

While researchers do not understand the specifics of how TMS works so effectively on depression, they do have a general idea of how it works.

Separate areas of our brains control different tasks, such as memory or impulse control. Thanks to imaging technology, researchers know which areas of the brain do not work as well in cases of depression. What TMS does is stimulate these areas to bring them “back to life” in a sense. This increased activity allows the brain to rebuild key neuropathways so that the patient feels fewer of the symptoms of depression.

What Happens in a TMS therapy session?

In a TMS therapy session, the doctor sets an electromagnetic coil on the patient’s head just above forehead. When turned on, this coil sends electromagnetic waves into certain areas of the brain that require stimulation. TMS does not require anesthesia nor cause pain. Patients can drive themselves to and from a session. While electromagnetic waves may sound intimidating, they are just like the technology used in an MRI.

Will TMS Cure My Depression?

TMS has been known to put depression into remission in some patients. Other patients see positive results that last for a long time. Working in regular therapy on techniques that help build coping mechanisms is a good way to supplement TMS.

TMS – A Safe Intervention

TMS should only be administered by trained medical professionals, including doctors, PAs, and nurse practitioners.

There are few side effects associated with TMS. After their first few treatments, some patients have a slight headache, which they can treat with OTC analgesics. Around ten percent of patients experience mild pain or tingling in the scalp, which can also be addressed with pain relievers. To protect their hearing, patients are required to wear earplugs during a session.

This list of side effects is far less than what many patients experience when they take antidepressants long-term.

TMS Benefits

A significant benefit of TMS is that it can work for patients who have not been helped by other interventions for depression. While therapy can work very well with mood disorders such as depression, it is not able to address the physical triggers of depression. TMS is able to give these patients the extra help they need by addressing the physical causes of depression.

TMS is also a long-term answer to depression, which can be fatal. Since TMS helps those who cannot be helped by other interventions, it can save people’s lives. Many patients with serious cases of depression are able to conduct long and happy lives after TMS.

TMS also offers an alternative to ECT, which has significant side effects. ECT can affect a patient’s long-term memory and requires anesthesia. TMS is an outpatient treatment that does not require sedation or anesthesia.

in the future, TMS may also benefit those with other disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, substance abuse, and anxiety.

What to Expect 

TMS sessions typically last 37 minutes and happen 5 days a week for a period of 4 to 6 weeks. Going to your first appointment can make you slightly nervous if you don’t know what to expect. The following cover the basics of TMS so you feel prepared and at ease at your first session.

What do I need to do before my session?

You do not need to make any special preparations before your first appointment. You might want to bring some OTC analgesics, in case you have a light headache afterwards. The medical staff will tell you to remove any magnetic accessories before your TMS session. You will also need to wear earplugs during the sessions. Finally, keeping your purse or wallet away from the TMS machine is advisable as well, since the machine can demagnetize credit card strips.

Will TMS Hurt?

In some cases, individuals have some mild scalp pain or a light headache after their first session. These symptoms often lessen after the first few sessions. This is a non-invasive procedure, so there will be no incisions made in your skin.

What Happens After Treatment?

Unlike ECT, which requires monitoring a patient after a session, TMS lets you leave as soon as you are done with your session. You can even drive yourself home, if you like. If you experience any reaction as severe as a seizure, you should seek medical attention immediately.