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What Are the Differences Between Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

What Are the Differences Between Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

What Are the Differences Between Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

Author: GIA Miami
Published: January 27, 2022

3.8% of the world’s population suffers from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Though a large number, new treatments continue to emerge every day. While those living with these mental health disorders can take antidepressant medications or attend support groups, brain stimulation therapies are gaining more traction.

Worldwide, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy are two treatments used to help alleviate depression. Although they may sound similar, the two treatments are very different.

Some of the most commonly asked questions surrounding these treatments include, "how does TMS treatment differ from ECT?" and "which is most effective in the treatment of depression and other mental health conditions?"

In this blog post, we’ll be unpacking these complex questions to help you decide which treatment is best for you.

What Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

A type of brain stimulation therapy, TMS uses a magnetic coil to deliver electromagnetic pulses to nerve cells in a client's brain. This magnetic stimulation triggers brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, helping to reduce symptoms of depression.

TMS therapy is always carried out by a vetted technician and treats various mental health conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

What Is Electroconvulsive Therapy?

Electroconvulsive therapy (also known as electroshock therapy) is a brain stimulation therapy that sends controlled electric currents to nerve cells in a client's brain, prompting a therapeutic seizure to take hold. Though it sounds a little alarming, this is an entirely normal reaction to ECT treatment and is just the body’s natural response to magnetic pulses reaching the brain.

Read more: TMS Florida

ECT is used to treat various mental health disorders, including severe depression and bipolar depression, and is usually carried out as an outpatient service in a doctor’s office. Those who undergo this treatment must take general anesthesia, and treatment sessions last about half a day to a full day.

How Effective Is TMS in Treating Depression?

Transcranial magnetic stimulation effectively treats specific mental illnesses caused by low levels of brain activity. As magnetic stimulation essentially triggers brain activity, it resets the brain and reduces depression symptoms. TMS treatment also boosts the brain’s ability to regulate emotions and mood, with most clients experiencing positive symptoms as soon as two to three weeks after a session.

But why is it effective? Well, those living with depression often have lower levels of brain activity, resulting in an inability to regulate and control moods. However, when TMS treatment is provided, it essentially resets this system and makes it easier to regulate emotions. A recent Harvard study only reiterates this, highlighting that 50% to 60% of those with depression experience a positive reaction to TMS, with one-third going into full remission.

How Effective Is ECT in Treating Severe Depression?

ECT treatment has a bit of a bad reputation. Many people have probably seen it dramatized in movies and books, and while there was a time when it was a bit like that, it’s evolved and become more of an accepted procedure in the medical community since.

First off, ECT is not administered under force, and people who use it nowadays do it at their own discretion or under the advice of a doctor.

ECT is similar to TMS because it treats mental health conditions, namely more severe disorders, such as treatment-resistant depression. As a brain stimulation therapy, direct electric currents are delivered to a client's brain, affecting neurons and controlling seizures.

Similar to TMS, this essentially resets the brain and helps regulate emotions, relieving symptoms of depression. Though quick, clients usually need to book four to six treatments to experience the same benefits.

Is TMS Safer Than ECT?

Though an invasive procedure, ECT is safe. Despite this, the deep brain stimulation that ECT triggers can cause a few side effects. These generally only last a few minutes but can be uncomfortable to deal with. These can include:

  • Confusion - Due to the strength of the magnetic pulses, some people get a little dizzy and experience confusion after a treatment session. This usually lasts between a few minutes to a few hours, though it rarely surpasses more than a day.
  • Long-term memory deficits - Some clients experience what’s known as retrograde amnesia and cannot remember specific events or details immediately after the session.
  • Physical symptoms - A few physical side effects can crop up, including nausea and muscle aches.
  • Complications - As with any medical procedure, there’s always the chance of encountering a complication. Though very rare, some people experience heart attacks after a session. It’s important to remember that medical care and supervision are available throughout treatment, so there’s nothing to worry about.

As can be seen, ECT does come hand-in-hand with a few risks, but it’s the same with all medical treatments. These risks are rare, and ECT remains an effective treatment for major depression and other serious mental health disorders.

The Differences Between TMS and ECT

Both ECT and TMS are brain stimulation therapies used to treat many mental health problems. Despite this, there are a few distinct differences between the two. Below, we have outlined a few of the key dissimilarities.

How Treatment Is Delivered

Though both treatments stimulate nerve cells via magnetic stimulation, the way they’re delivered is slightly different. During a transcranial magnetic stimulation session, a TMS technician will place an electric coil on a client's head, close to their scalp. After analyzing their motor threshold, they will deliver pulses to nerve cells in the brain. This then triggers brain activity, relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety. Unlike ECT, no anesthesia is needed.

On the other hand, ECT requires a client to take general anesthesia and a muscle relaxant. This is because ECT triggers a small seizure via electrical currents in the brain, meaning clients will need to be asleep for the entirety of the procedure. Electrodes will be attached around the scalp to deliver electric pulses during a session, and these will then stimulate brain activity and help regulate emotions.

The Cost of Treatment

TMS treatments and ECT therapy are similar in price - each costs around $300 to $1,000 per session. However, costs do depend on several factors, including the number of sessions and whether or not it was an outpatient service.

The Length of Treatment Time

Treatment times for ECT and TMS therapy differ, so clients need to consider how much time they're willing to commit to sessions.

Read more: Pros and Cons of TMS Therapy

In general, TMS is a quick procedure that takes around thirty to forty minutes, with little to no downtime. On the other hand, ECT therapy can take as long as a day. Though the treatment is usually performed in as little as five to ten minutes, ECT requires quite a bit of downtime because of the anesthesia clients take.

Conditions That Are Treated

One of the significant differences between TMS therapy and ECT is the type of conditions that they’re used to treat. While both are used to treat cases of depression, ECT is usually seen as a last resort. Used in cases of treatment-resistant depression and extreme or deteriorating conditions, like mania, ECT is only used in specific circumstances.

Meanwhile, TMS therapy caters to a broader range of conditions and treats depression in all its forms, whether mild or severe.


It’s also important to note that ECT has a slightly more invasive nature than TMS. Though it can’t cause any physical harm or damage to the brain’s structure, it’s generally not recommended for those with milder cases of depression and anxiety.

TMS vs. ECT: Which Is Better?

When thinking about the effectiveness of TMS vs. ECT, it’s better to phrase the question as "which option will be best for me?"

Both TMS and ECT are very different, and both have distinct purposes. While they’re used to treat a range of mental health conditions, there are a few things clients may want to consider before making their choice.

ECT Has More Side Effects

ECT produces physical effects like muscle pain, higher blood pressure, muscle aches, and nausea. These only last for a short period, but they can be uncomfortable. More severe side effects include long-term memory deficits (bouts of amnesia and forgetfulness), though these are extremely rare. TMS, on the other hand, produces little to no side effects.

ECT Is Seen as a Last Resort

Due to its invasive nature, ECT is rarely considered for mild cases of depression and anxiety. It’s only recommended in cases of treatment-resistant depression or instances where the condition is deteriorating at a rapid rate.

If someone suffers from depression, it’s probably best for them to give TMS a try first. If, however, improvement with medication and therapy is not experienced, ECT might be the right solution. Those with severe depression and suicidal thoughts are also recommended to try ECT. Though it’s a little more intense than TMS, it can be potentially life-saving.

Start Your Journey With Gia Miami Today

At GIA Miami, we’re dedicated to helping our clients build the life they want and deserve. Mental illness doesn’t have to hold anyone back, which is why we’ve created a range of treatment packages to help everyone overcome their condition.

Each treatment plan is personalized to suit each individual's needs and lifestyle, making it easier to take steps in the right direction. Whether a person suffers from depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety, we cater to many mental health disorders.

Get in touch with us today to learn more about our standard treatment packages and the admissions process.

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