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Crash Course in TMS Therapy

October 22, 2020

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Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy is an alternative psychiatric treatment option for mental health conditions. In the TMS acronym, transcranial refers to the areas of the brain targeted by the TMS device. The magnetic stimulation refers to magnetic pulses delivered to the brain to target atypical brain chemistry. The procedure is noninvasive and most effective for mental health conditions resistant to medications. Read down below to learn the following info about TMS therapy and its remarkable effects:

  • What is TMS therapy?
  • How does TMS therapy work?
  • What conditions can TMS treat?
Reclining medical chair
Transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy is delivered in a secure and comfortable medical room. Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.

What is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

TMS modifies activity in various areas of the brain to induce changes in mood regulation. Using magnetic pulses that pass through the skull and into the brain, TMS can help relieve distressing symptoms in conditions such as anxiety, major depression, and PTSD. 

Scientist Michael Faraday was the first to discover the physics behind TMS therapy in 1881. He was able to run electricity through a coil using a magnetic field and discovered that the changing magnetic field could affect electric conductors near it--this includes neurons in the brain. As the magnetic field becomes more intense or changes rapidly, certain neurotransmitters can be released into the brain. Neurotransmitters can influence specific brain functioning--one example is serotonin, which improves mood. 

Utilizing the TMS science discovered by Faraday, psychiatry researchers in the mid-1900s began to study the effects of the therapy on major depression. The first modern TMS device was introduced in 1985 by a group of doctors, and subsequent studies concluded that the therapy was effective in treating depression patients who were resistant to other therapy interventions. 

TMS has since then become a widely renowned alternative treatment for various mental health conditions, especially for patients who are resistant to medications. TMS has the effectiveness of psychiatric treatment without severe side effects like weight gain and tremors. TMS doesn’t cause side effects in most patients other than a potential headache, which only about five percent of patients reported. 

A group of medical professionals stand in a clinic hallway
You can receive TMS therapy sessions in a specialized clinic. Image courtesy of Pexels.com.

How Does TMS Work?

TMS therapy is administered by licensed TMS technicians and physicians. The non-invasive treatment is available at clinics and entails a safe, effective procedure in each session. TMS is delivered in a standard repetitive TMS (rTMS) method and a deep TMS (dTMS) method, both of which differ in targeted brain areas, delivery of magnetic pulses, and type of coil used. 

The standard rTMS method that targets the cognitive and executive functioning areas of the brain. The type of coil in this method delivers repeated magnetic pulses in a narrow, vertical direction. Deep TMS targets deeper brain structures to affect the reward and motivation pathways in the brain. The type of coil used in dTMS sessions creates magnetic pulses in a radial shape to penetrate deeper areas of the brain. 

In a typical rTMS session, the TMS device has a coil that is placed above the seated patient’s head. The device produces clicking sounds with each of its magnetic pulses, and these feel like light tapping on the patient’s scalp. Patients are encouraged to wear earbuds to reduce the discomfort from the clicking noises. With each magnetic pulse, activity and communication between neurons is promoted in the brain. Both reward/motivation and executive/cognitive areas of the brain are associated with mental illness symptoms, making both standard rTMS and dTMS compelling methods in treating mental health conditions. A professional in TMS is equipped to determine which TMS method is most effective for any patient.

An initial TMS session involves a technician calibrating the device to determine the patient’s threshold for the magnetic pulses, allowing for future sessions to be more customized and comfortable. Following a TMS therapy session, patients can go out and resume their days as normal. There’s no issues with being able to drive or perform other daily activities post-session. 

Girl stares sadly at lake
Mental disorder symptoms that cause distress and disruption in your daily life can be treated with TMS therapy. Image courtesy of Pexels.com.

What Can TMS Treat?

Depression

Depression is a mood disorder with disruptive and persistent symptoms such as fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, and persistent sad mood. Research shows that an increase in neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine can counteract depressive mood symptoms. Antidepressants are a common psychiatric treatment for depression, but TMS therapy can be more effective for symptoms resistant to medications. The electromagnetic pulses delivered by TMS devices are able to target areas in the brain associated with mood, inducing activity and neurotransmitters that will translate to changes in mood regulation. 

Anxiety

Generalized anxiety disorder entails symptoms such as panic attacks, muscle tension, and irritability. Though the exact cause of GAD is assumed to be between brain chemistry, genetics, and environmental stressors, research has proven that antidepressants and benzodiazepines are appropriate treatment interventions. However, TMS therapy can ease symptoms if these types of medications aren’t relieving symptoms well. Anxiety can result from over-heightened activity in areas of the brain, and TMS can regulate these overactive areas to provide symptom relief.

PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is defined by extreme anxiety in response to situations or events that trigger reexperience of a trauma. The typical psychiatric treatment option for PTSD is an antidepressant, but TMS therapy can provide symptom relief for patients resistant to medications. Irregular activity in brain areas associated with anxiety and distinguishing between past and present are believed to induce PTSD symptoms, and TMS therapy can regulate activity in those areas to reduce symptoms.

OCD

Obsessive compulsive disorder entails anxiety-inducing thoughts and behaviors toward fixations such as contamination, counting, and mental rituals. Generally antidepressants and psychotherapy are common treatment options for OCD symptoms--but medications aren’t effective for every case. Areas of the brain related to control, decision-making, and memory can be targeted in TMS therapy to relieve both the emotional and behavioral symptoms of OCD. 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy can provide powerful symptom relief for mental health conditions that are unresponsive to other treatments. If your mental disorder symptoms aren’t letting up under the treatment of medication, you still have options-- reach out to a local TMS clinic near you for help.

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