TMS & Other Therapies

Could TMS Be Right for You?

July 24, 2019

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is an innovative medical treatment that uses electromagnetic force to spark activity in the brain. 

In 2008, TMS was approved by the FDA to treat major depressive disorder, and it is now covered by most health insurances, making it an increasingly accessible therapy. However, most people are still unfamiliar with TMS as a treatment option. 

Keep reading to learn more about TMS, including: 

  • How TMS works, and what it does
  • Who the best candidates for TMS are

Overview of TMS

How does TMS work?

The magnetic pulses channeled during TMS therapy create electrical currents that stimulate neurons in the brain. Over time, this can change how the brain works, including the way it generates mood—which is why TMS is used to treat depression. 

Scientists theorize that TMS works because the brain is highly adaptable. But in order for the therapy to be effective, it requires frequent, consistent application for around six weeks. 

For the duration of the treatment, the patient has to attend a TMS session five days a week. During a session, a specially trained technician positions a conductive coil against the patient’s head. The TMS magnet passes through the coil and superficially penetrates the skull. 

Doctor stands next to TMS machine
This is what the TMS machine looks like. The patient sits comfortably during the treatment, similar to sitting in the chair at the dentist. Image courtesy of Guidance Center

Each session lasts around forty minutes. Because TMS is non-invasive, the patient is fully awake throughout the session and can resume daily life activity afterward, including driving. 

The first session of TMS is expected to be longer than the rest, as the doctor must do some “mapping” in order to find the right target-area for the treatment. This is because no two brains are alike, and the doctor will have to find which region of your head is the optimal spot for the TMS to be applied. 

After the six weeks are over, the treatments stop. There is no withdrawal that occurs with stopping the treatment, and the results should last a year or more. 

TMS is not painful, but it may cause minor irritations such as redness or itchiness at the treatment site or a slight headache following a session. Aside from mild discomfort, there are no known side effects of TMS, which is one of the reasons some patients find it to be a preferable alternative to antidepressants. 

What does TMS do?

Because depression can cause certain areas of the brain to be under-active, TMS can re-energize the cells not functioning correctly. With depression, TMS is intended to improve mood and reduce symptoms like fatigue, restlessness, sleep disturbances, and others. 

Girl stays in bed from depression
TMS is a scheduled time-commitment, which means it might be difficult for some patients with depression to maintain appointments. This is one of the drawbacks of TMS, along with an inability to confirm if treatments will be effective. 

Though TMS is only approved in the United States to treat major depressive disorder, studies have shown it to be effective in treating other conditions like Parkinson’s, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and many more. 

Additionally, TMS technology is widely applicable to scientific experimentation, especially in the fields of neurology and psychiatry. This includes studies involving sleep, memory, and the senses. 

Who TMS Can Help: The Best Candidates for TMS 

The best candidates for TMS are those with major depressive disorder that has proved treatment resistant. This means the patient’s depression has persisted for an extended period of time despite treatment with medication and psychotherapy. 

Because TMS uses a magnet, patients with metalware in or around the head might not be approved for the therapy. Be sure to disclose if you have:

  • Aneurysm clips
  • Arterial stents
  • Tattoos with metallic ink 
Girl with depression is distracted outside
Affecting over 300 million people, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Unfortunately, there is no way to tell whether or not a patient will respond to TMS treatment. However, researchers recently conducted a study in which they tried using electroencephalography (EEG) brain scans to find differences in the brains of patients who found TMS to be effective versus those that did not. They found that responders “stronger theta waves in the prefrontal cortex both during rest and during the working memory task, and stronger connectivity between brain regions during the working memory task.” 

The method was 90 percent effective in identifying responders and 92 percent effective in identifying non-responders. 

The researchers are optimistic that these results suggest a potential to better distinguish who TMS will benefit from who it will not. 

Ask Your Doctor about TMS

Antidepressant medication doesn’t work for around 45 percent of people. If your depression hasn’t gotten better after trying one or more antidepressants, ask your doctor about finding a TMS provider near you. 

Unlike antidepressants, TMS doesn’t have a long list of side effects. It’s covered by most insurances and available across the United States. 

Though it is not yet part of mainstream psychiatric treatment, 50 to 60 percent of patients with depression find TMS effective. 

TMS could be the answer you’ve been looking for. Take the first step, and talk to your doctor about it today. 


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