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When traditional treatments fail, TMS can offer relief from symptoms of major depression

Bryn Mawr Hospital May 22, 2020 General Wellness

It’s likely that, at some point, everyone will have some experience dealing with depression. Depression can be temporary and situational, like a career setback or loss of a loved one, or it can be more permanent. It is normal to feel sad and down at times, but most of us will find a way back to a healthier emotional state.

But major depression, which affects 7.1% of adults in the United States, is a chronic health issue with symptoms that can severely impact quality of life. People with major depression often describe a profound and overbearing sense of sadness and despair that lasts for several months or years, and this may be accompanied by other symptoms like:

  • Decreased interest or pleasure in most activates
  • Changes in sleep patterns and appetite
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feeling of worthlessness and guilt
  • Poor concentration
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

Many people with major depression have lived with the disorder for a long time, even if they were only recently diagnosed. And while some may have found relief from their symptoms through traditional treatment methods like antidepressants or talk therapy, others require a more innovative treatment option. 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may be an option for patients whose depression has proven resistant to traditional treatments.

What is TMS?

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is an FDA-approved treatment for people with severe depression. It is a noninvasive outpatient procedure that uses an electromagnetic coil to deliver measured, targeted magnetic pulses to the area of the brain that is thought to be associated with mood regulation and depression.

The idea of magnetic pulses directed to the brain can sound scary and might make you hesitant to explore TMS, but this magnetic energy is the same strength as what you might experience during an MRI, only more focused to a small area of the brain.

“TMS is a safe and effective treatment for depression and can be used in conjunction with other therapies,” explains Marc A. Burock, MD, medical director of Main Line Health’s behavioral health program. "We use the minimal effective dose of magnetic stimulation tailored to the patient's specific needs.”

How do I know that TMS will work?

If you’ve explored several different options for depression treatment and have not had success, you might be discouraged or doubt the effectiveness of TMS. While the results will vary for every person, many patients who have undergone TMS treatment have found great success. In fact, approximately 50-60 percent of people who have not been able to effectively manage their condition with antidepressants found relief after TMS treatment. 

Research has also suggested that, for most people, the side effects of TMS are not as numerous as the side effects of antidepressants and do not greatly impact quality of life.

“The majority of side effects reported by patients are mild to moderate scalp discomfort and this usually subsides after the first few sessions,” says Dr. Burock. "While you might experience headaches or other mild side effects, these are typically short-lasting and can be decreased by adjusting the treatment settings."

It’s important to remember that—like all treatments—TMS is not intended to cure depression. Instead, it is one of several different treatment methods intended to manage the symptoms of major depression and improve daily quality of life for those who suffer from the disorder. Dr. Burock reminds patients that TMS should be one part of a comprehensive plan to manage depression symptoms.

“TMS can be used as a standalone treatment, but it can also be a complement to other types of treatment, like medication or therapy. There is no ‘right way’ to treat depression, which means you need to work with your health care provider to find a combination of tactics and treatments that’s right for you.”

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