Health Beat: Treating depression with electroconvulsive therapy

Treating depression with electroconvulsive therapy

MIAMI - Electroshock therapy was first used in 1938 to induce a therapeutic seizure. Those seizures seemed to reset the brain. Todaym the treatment is nothing like the Frankenstein depictions in film and television.

When medication and hospitalization no longer work for 100,000 psychiatric patients, depression and bipolar disorder are wiped away with electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now looking into the pros and cons of ECT.

This is what scares us most about ECT, a high voltage of electricity sent directly into a patient's brain without any pain medication.

"It used to be that people would have a full convulsion and they would break bones from the contracture of the, of the muscles," said Dr. Michael Hughes, psychiatrist at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Today, however, patients are put under anesthesia and the low dose electricity is safely regulated by the newest machine.

"The machine quite dramatically modifies the waveform of the current as it passes through the machine and then gets administered to the central nervous system," said Dr. Martin Strassnig, attending psychiatrist and chief, ECT service, University of Miami.

It changed Barry Wiernik's life.

"He said, 'Roni, I don't want to live and I can't get out of bed,'" said Roni Wiernik, Barry's wife.

Barry Wiernik is bipolar and suffers from severe depression. Newly prescribed maintenance ECT every eight weeks is the only way to keep him from relapsing.

"There's no pain involved. You go under general anesthesia, you wake up within an hour, and it's like nothing happened," Wiernik said.

"I think this is such a wonderful thing because it helped my husband," Roni said.

Harvard trained psychiatrist Dr. Michael Hughes said ECT could cause some temporary memory loss, soreness, and nausea, but it works and can even now be used during pregnancy, instead of mood enhancing drugs.

"It's scary for people to hear about it. When you know about it and see it, it is safe," Hughes said.

Some states, such as Utah, have tried to outlaw ECT.

It is, however, legal and used to treat severe depression and bipolar disorder that is resistant to medication.

In fact, two thirds of those patients are women. ECT is covered by insurance as both an inpatient and outpatient procedure.

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