Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a relatively new breakthrough in mental health care, and in the past few years, psychiatrists have begun to use TMS for depression treatment because it acts quicker, has fewer side effects, and is more effective than antidepressant medications.
Depression and Traditional Depression Treatments
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), often simply referred to as depression, is a serious mental illness that affects around 20 million adults in the United States. Now believed to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, major depression is a biological disorder characterized by severe symptoms that can alter how one thinks, feels, and moves through their daily life.
Common symptoms of depression include persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. In addition to persistent feelings of sadness and anxiety, those affected may experience a loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and generalized bodily pain. Depression symptoms can vary in severity and duration, and may interfere with a person’s ability to carry out daily activities, work, or socialize.
Since the advent of antidepressants in the early 1950’s, depression has typically been treated with a combination of counseling and prescription drugs. In the past decade, the prevalence of depression and other forms of mental illness has increased drastically. At the same time, the use of antidepressants has also increased drastically. Research suggests that today as many as 1 in 10 Americans take some form of antidepressant. This trend is not without controversy though, as several recent studies have questioned the safety and long-term use of these medications. On top of that, the efficacy of these treatments has recently come into question. Statistically, antidepressant therapies provide a response rate of 67%, compared to a 33% response rate of placebos. This figure, however, does not fully encapsulate the frequency with which many patients fail drug trials. Some patients experience pharmacoresistant depression and may attempt four or more drug trials without any significant symptom relief. Other patients may simply find the side effects of these drugs intolerable, quitting treatment due to nausea, diarrhea, weight gain, insomnia, or sexual dysfunction.
TMS for Depression
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), is an effective alternative treatment for depression. TMS uses magnetic pulses and brain stimulation to “wake up” certain areas of the brain responsible for mood. TMS is drug-free, twice as effective as traditional treatments, and can be used alone or in conjunction with medications and talk therapy.
TMS has been around since the 1980s. It was originally used as a mapping technique to map the brain to determine which parts of the brain are responsible for which actions. Since then, TMS has been FDA-cleared for depression in 2008, migraines in 2013, OCD in 2018, and for cigarette cessation in 2019. Current research also documents TMS to be helpful for bipolar depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment, with more repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation-related studies being released all the time.
What Does TMS Treatment Look Like Today?
During TMS or (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation) treatment, gentle magnetic pulses from a magnetic coil are used to stimulate specific areas of the brain responsible for mood, like physical therapy for the brain. TMS is non-invasive, meaning it does not require surgery. Unlike antidepressant medication, TMS is also non-systemic, which means it only affects the brain and nerve cells instead of the whole body. Currently, most insurance companies fully cover TMS for treatment-resistant depression.
During treatment, patients relax in a private room and are reclined in a treatment chair. A TMS technician positions the magnet over the patient’s head to deliver gentle magnetic pulses. Each session lasts about 20 minutes during which patients can read, listen to music, watch TV, or even meditate. Because TMS does not require sedation or medication, unlike other brain stimulation therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy, patients are safe to drive themselves to and from treatments and return back to their daily routines immediately after their session.
TMS side effects are limited and mild, and in some cases, there are no side effects at all. Some patients report mild scalp discomfort or headache during active treatment, easily avoidable by premedication with Tylenol or Motrin. Most patients experience symptom improvement after two weeks of treatment.
TMS for Treatment-Resistant Depression
For those who struggle with major depressive disorder, the neuron activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is commonly dormant. TMS therapy has been shown to stimulate nerve cells to strengthen neuronal activity. The gentle magnetic pulses stimulate the specific neurocircuitry of the brain which is known to be underactive in depression. Over 70% of Neuro Wellness Spa TMS therapy patients experience relief from their depression symptoms.
A series of double-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled trials conducted in the mid-2000’s unequivocally established the medical efficacy of TMS treatment for depression and led to the technique’s FDA approval. The first of these studies, the Neuronetics Clinical Trial in 2007, found that patients randomly assigned to a real-TMS treatment group demonstrated a “clinically meaningful improvement” when compared to subjects in the placebo-TMS group. An even larger study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) shortly thereafter, found those treated with real-TMS were four times more likely to see symptom remissions than those in the placebo-control group. From this evidence, the authors concluded that “daily left prefrontal TMS as a monotherapy produced statistically significant and clinically meaningful antidepressant therapeutic effects greater than that of the placebo-control.
Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Right for Me?
For years, the initial response to treat health conditions has been medication and talk therapy. These conventional treatment methods may work for some, however, they don’t work for everyone. If your medications haven’t made you 100% better or if you’re having side effects, TMS is an ideal treatment option. TMS targets depression at the source, as opposed to medications that can affect the whole body. If you’re experiencing any of the following, TMS therapy could be your next step:
- You’re experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or OCD
- You’ve tried traditional anti-depressants and they’re not working
- You’ve experienced unwanted side effects from medication
- You’ve felt consumed by your symptoms or disconnected from “who you are”
- Your symptoms are interfering with your daily life or affecting your relationships with friends and family
TMS therapy treats a multitude of mental illnesses, not just major depression. It is indicated for multiple conditions, and more research is published every day. TMS’s magnetic pulses have also proven to balance other key areas of the brain to help relieve symptoms from other mental health disorders including:
- Peripartum Depression
- Memory Loss
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Bipolar Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Peak Performance
- Smoking Cessation
- Addiction Relapse Prevention
- Traumatic Brain Injury