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“What is a TMS Technician?” and Other Questions You Might Have about TMS

September 2, 2019

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Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a groundbreaking psychiatric treatment that is steadily gaining traction in the mental health community. 

During a TMS session, a trained technician uses targeted magnetic pulses to stimulate the brain, which can help relieve symptoms of conditions like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. 

Are you interested in learning more about TMS? If so, keep reading because in this article we’ll cover all the basics, including:

What is TMS?

TMS is a non-invasive procedure that uses electromagnetic waves to adjust the brain’s chemistry. Though the first reliable TMS machine was introduced in 1985, the history behind the treatment dates back to 1771 when the field of electrophysiology was initially developed by Luigi Galvani, a physician in Italy. 

Electricity plays a major role in the human body. This is because elements that are present in the body—such as sodium, calcium, and magnesium—hold an electrical charge and use electrical currents to conduct bodily functions ranging from action and movement to thought and behavior.

Graphic from Scientific Animation states that the brain operates on the same amount of power as a 10-watt light bulb
Cells in the body use proteins called ion channels to exchange positive and negative charges with one another. This means the body, including the brain, is brimming with electricity. Image courtesy of Scientific Animation

In 1881, Michael Faraday, an English physicist, discovered that an electrical current passing through a wire coil could create a magnetic field. This phenomenon is another physical principle upon which TMS was founded, as TMS uses a stimulating coil to facilitate its magnetic pulses. 

Anthony Barker, Ph.D., is credited with the discovery of TMS, which he demonstrated in 1985 at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in England. Barker and his colleagues were able to generate a direct tissue response by stimulating the brain with a magnetic coil. 

TMS was approved by the FDA in 2008 to treat major depressive disorder. It is covered by most insurances for patients with treatment-resistant depression—that is, depression that has persisted despite medication and psychotherapy. Most recently, the FDA approved TMS as a treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder. Researchers suspect TMS could be helpful for many more conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease, Asperger syndrome, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and others. 

How Does TMS Work?

TMS is a repetitive treatment that requires daily application for approximately six weeks. These prolonged periods of stimulation energize brain cells and facilitates activity in the brain. When used as a treatment for depression, TMS can improve mood by stimulating the area of the brain where depression is most localized. 

Because everyone’s brain is different, the first session of TMS is dedicated to finding the right spot on the patient’s head to apply the treatment and determining the correct magnetic frequency. This process is called mapping

Technicians undergo training in order to learn how to use the Neurostar TMS machine
This is what a standard TMS machine looks like. The patient is seated during the treatment while a trained technician operates the machine. Image courtesy of Yelp

Magnetic pulses penetrate the skull with almost no resistance, making TMS non-invasive and virtually painless. This means that a patient is fully conscious throughout TMS without any need for sedatives or numbing. Additionally, TMS does not affect cognition, allowing the patient to return to daily activities following treatments. 

For some people, a major drawback of antidepressant medication is negative side effects. These include weight gain, nausea, lethargy, and more. With TMS, the only side effects are mild headaches and irritation around the treatment site. Not all patients experience these side effects, and those that do usually find they are very brief and subside after the first few sessions. 

TMS is non-pharmaceutical, so most patients are able to continue taking medication while undergoing treatment. In fact, it is quite common for TMS to be used in combination with antidepressants, though some patients might decide to stop taking them after completing a round of TMS. 

After around six weeks of daily sessions five days a week, the patient ceases TMS treatment. If the patient finds TMS successful, they can undergo treatment again if they notice the results have diminished. Because TMS is highly subjective, there is no way to know how long its effects will last—though, they should last six months to a year, at the very least. 

What is a TMS Technician?

Because TMS requires the operation of specialized medical technology, it must be administered by a technician. TMS technicians undergo training in order to become certified and allowed to deliver a patient’s treatment. 

TMS machines have a main unit that generates the magnetic pulses
TMS machines can be broken down into two major pieces: the electromagnetic coil, which channels the magnetic pulses, and the main unit, which generates them. Image courtesy of The Durango Herald

Though TMS is prescribed and overseen by a psychiatrist or physician, the technician does not necessarily have to be a doctor. They might be a medical student, nurse or nurse practitioner, medical assistant, social worker, therapist, or someone else who has a background in psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, medicine, or nursing. 

While a qualified medical professional will be in charge of the treatment process as a whole, a technician is likely to be highly involved in a patient’s TMS experience, as the doctor is usually not able to attend each individual session. 

For this reason, when it comes to TMS, a willingness to connect with patients is just as important as understanding the technology behind the treatment. 

Each TMS provider its own training process to certify technicians. However, this training usually involves taking a course focusing on the logistics of TMS, including scientific and practical information to ensure the technician fully understands the treatment and how to work the machinery. On-site, hands-on training and direct observation are also a part of this process. 

Find Out More About TMS 

If you think TMS could be right for you, ask your doctor about it today. Even if they don’t know much about the treatment, they’ll be able to refer you to someone who does. 

As TMS continues to grow in popularity, it’s becoming more accessible to people everywhere. Not only does this mean greater diversity in mental health treatment options, but it also brings about greater chances of recovery. 

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