3 Things You Need to Know About Treating Depression with TMS Therapy


Depression comes in many forms-- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), post-traumatic depression, bipolar depression, and countless others. Across all of these diagnoses, “struggling with depression” is one of the most common ways people describe their relationship with their mental health, and with good reason. There are dozens of drug-based FDA-approved depression treatments, and not all of them are effective for all patients. Finding a medication that truly addresses the symptoms of your depression can be a long, difficult, and frustrating process, and it often leaves patients wondering: what will I do if I can’t find a medication that works for me?

For those who haven’t achieved depression relief from medication alone or are unable to take medication to treat their depression, TMS therapy can be a life-changing alternative. In this article, we’ll give you the top 3 things you need to know about TMS therapy:

  • How TMS therapy works
  • What TMS therapy is not
  • When TMS therapy was discovered
  • What TMS therapy is doing for depression patients
a woman receiving tms therapy
A doctor administers TMS therapy, a non-invasive non-drug alternative to traditional depression treatments. Image courtesy of Penn Psychiatric Center.

What is TMS therapy, anyway?

You might have heard about TMS therapy before, but how much do you really know about it? With so many different mental and behavioral health treatments out there, it can be difficult to keep track of the ones that are really worth paying attention to.

To start off, the “TMS” in TMS therapy stands for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which is a therapy that uses electromagnetic fields to stimulate areas in the brain that may be underactive in people suffering from depression. The electromagnetic fields are pulsed through a special coil that is placed on the scalp, making it a non-invasive non-drug depression treatment.

TMS coils come in a variety of different shapes and sizes that are tailored to different kinds of depression. Figure-eight and butterfly-shaped TMS coils are commonly used because they allow for shallow penetration of the brain, but in some instances larger coils may be preferable. For example, Major Depressive Disorder is associated with structures found deeper within the brain, so to properly treat MDD, larger coils may be needed to produce the desired effect.

Following their experiences with different drug-based depression therapies, many people struggling with depression are understandably concerned with the potential side effects TMS therapy may have. Compared to antidepressant medications, TMS therapy has just a few mild side effects.

Side Effects of Antidepressant Drugs

  • Insomnia
  • Chronic headaches/migraines
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Nausea
  • GI distress
  • Sexual dysfunction

Side Effects of TMS Therapy

  • Scalp pain or discomfort
  • Mild headaches
  • Neck pain
Two women enjoying coffee together
It can be difficult to find a depression treatment that actually works. TMS is offers a safe an effective alternative to antidepressants and other traditional depression treatments.

1. TMS is not “shock” therapy.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)-- sometimes referred to as “shock” therapy in popular culture-- has been a controversial treatment since it was introduced in 1938. While it has been clinically proven to be an effective therapy for certain psychiatric conditions, it is popularly viewed by many doctors and patients alike as a crude and cruel treatment method that can easily be abused for punishment or behavior control purposes.

While TMS and ECT are both cranial therapies for depressive disorders, they work very differently. In ECT, electrodes are attached to the scalp, and electrical currents are directed through the brain, essentially causing a series of intentional “generalized seizures.”

TMS, on the other hand, stimulates neural activity by inducing electrical currents with a magnetic beam. Some people have suggested that the TMS treatment is similar to the experience of being in an MRI. Patients may hear clicking sounds from the magnets used in TMS treatment and feel a gentle tapping sensation.

two men shake hands
TMS inventor Dr. Anthony Barker (left) meets with colleagues at a neural engineering event. Image courtesy of CUNY Department of Biomedical Engineering.

2. TMS Therapy has been around for over 30 years.

Although TMS therapy has gained a great deal of attention recently, it is an innovation that is actually more than 30 years in the making. The therapy was first introduced in 1985 by Anthony Barker at the University of Sheffield in England. Barker’s research was based in the physical principles of Ampere’s law and Faraday’s principle of electromagnetic induction, and he originally designed TMS to be a neurodiagnostic tool.

However, it quickly became apparent that TMS had a great deal of therapeutic potential, and in the last 30 years it has been studied extensively as a promising treatment for a variety of mental and behavioral health troubles with varying levels of success. A few of the applications that have been studied include:

  • Major Depressive Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
a woman does yoga on the beach
TMS therapy helps restore mental health, offering new hope to people struggling with depression.

3. People who haven’t achieved remission from depression with other therapies are seeing results.

Of the various applications of TMS therapy that the psychiatric community has researched in the last three decades, the most promising results have come from studies exploring TMS therapy as a treatment for depressive disorders.

According to a 2005 study led by Linda L. Carpenter, M.D., and including other prominent psychiatric researchers including Paul E. Holtzheimer, M.D., and William M. McDonald, M.D., TMS is a safe and effective depression treatment. The study included 92 individuals who had received antidepressant medication as treatment and didn’t experience improvement. Some of the participants were treated with TMS, and the rest of the patients received a placebo treatment in which the TMS coils were placed on their heads but no electromagnetic treatment was delivered.

After several weeks, 55.3% of those treated with TMS showed improvement (versus 32.4% of the placebo group), which is an incredibly promising result.

Another promising result of the same study was how well-tolerated TMS treatment was in the participants.

a woman and workout clothes throws both rms triumphantly into the sky
TMS is an innovative depression treatment that can help you achieve depression remission and get your life back.

Regardless of the type of depression you find yourself struggling with, finding a therapy that truly addresses your symptoms can be a long and frustrating process. Luckily even when medication alone proves ineffective, innovative treatments such as TMS therapy can offer new hope to patients.

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