How Effective Is TMS, Really?
November 23, 2020
There are quite a few options when it comes to managing mental health issues and neurological challenges. Psychotherapy, medication, and occupational therapy are among the most common. But recently, a new treatment option proven to be useful in a few different contexts has been gaining more visibility in the mental health community: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). Let’s take a look at just how this method is in treating psychological ailments and more.
Getting Acquainted With TMS
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is an up and coming method used to target treatment-resistant depression and other severe mental disorders.
When we keep struggling despite going through psychotherapy, psychiatry, etc., skepticism regarding other options is an understandable response.
What Makes It Different?
TMS is considered revolutionary because of what’s involved and how few risk factors there are . Unlike its counterpart, Electroconvulsive Therapy, there is no known possibility of adverse brain effects, like memory loss.
And because of its lack of side-effects, it’s an outpatient procedure. With TMS, there’s no need for anesthetics, so it doesn’t cause much disruption. One of its more desirable features is that patients can drive themselves home or go about their days immediately after each session. Convenient, right?
How Does It Work?
Using targeted magnetic pulses, TMS stimulates areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and processing. But that’s not all they do. Those little clicks encourage the formation of new neural connections, alleviating painful symptoms.
What To Expect
A TMS session lasts about 30-40 minutes. No preparation needs to be done before coming in--you only need to bring yourself. The initial session is a bit different, though. The first time you sit in the chair, a specialized TMS practitioner will take the head measurements to ensure the magnetic pulses stimulate the proper areas.
Don’t be alarmed when you see the machine! It’s certainly a sight to see but isn’t scary in the least. The TMS apparatus is often compared to an MRI machine, which, if you’ve ever gotten one, know that it’s painless.
Each session, you will be given a pair of earplugs to wear to protect your ears. After that, the only thing to do is sit back and let TMS do its thing.
In terms of the physical experience, you’ll hear a few clicks and feel a tapping sensation, but that’s it. Sounds manageable, right?
A course of treatment may range anywhere from six to eight weeks. For optimal results, patients will have five sessions per week.
Who Benefits From TMS?
While long-standing depression is the most popular reason to seek out TMS, there are a number of other conditions it is known to heal. Some include--
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Autism and Aspberger’s
Many patients and practitioners alike wouldn’t expect TMS to be applicable in such a wide array of disorders. But as more research is done, TMS shows time and time again how versatile it has the potential to be.
This makes sense, considering how TMS works. If the magnetic pulses are directed at the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, surely it can do more than mitigate depressive symptoms.
In thinking about the list above, it’s important to note that many conditions may co-occur or intersect with depression. Take anxious and depressive tendencies, for example. They’re often described as two sides of the same coin. More often than not, depression is a comorbidity of PTSD.
Still, depression is not a requirement to go forward with TMS. When patients seek it out for other conditions, it’s considered ‘off-label.’ Still, they may benefit just as much as those with depression.
Real People, Real Stories
Sometimes the best way to get the information we need is through others experiences. When we hear our own stories in someone else’s, it’s easier to imagine ourselves taking the same steps--especially when they’ve been successful! Here’s how TMS has helped different people in different situations.
Susan’s Story: Gaining Relief From Major Depression
Having dealt with depression during her teens, Susan was no stranger to the throws of mental illness. Still, that was a long time ago. As life went on, her pain subsided. Her twenties and thirties went on without her depressive symptoms. But in her forties, she went through the loss of a marriage, father, and best friend.
Understandably so, this brought on a new onslaught of symptoms. Wanting relief, Susan began taking medication and going to therapy. Even after her circumstances improved, her mental state continued to decline. Eventually, she stopped responding to medication altogether.
Not wanting to risk the negative side-effects associated with ECT, Susan began an average course of TMS--sessions Monday-Friday for a total of six weeks. Four weeks in, she began to feel like herself again, something she thought impossible.
“I feel like the joy has returned to my life. I feel like I’m back where I was years ago.”
Upon finishing TMS treatment, she felt her depression lift completely. Though she continued to take antidepressants during and after her prescribed six weeks, TMS made the most profound impact.
Julie’s Journey: Moving Past PTSD
After being sexually assaulted in 2014, Julie Kabat developed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. For many sufferers, PTSD symptoms are incredibly challenging to live with, even with therapeutic and pharmacological interventions--Julie was no exception.
Her daughters, she said, were her only source of hope.
“That’s pretty much the only thing that kept me going. I didn’t feel suicidal, but I felt that if I were to get in a plane crash or an accident, that would be fine. It would relieve the pain.”
At the height of her illness, Julie was on four antidepressants at once. It’s no wonder she decided to give TMS a try!
The FDA has only approved TMS for Major Depression and OCD. Julie’s case, however, shows us how effective it is in treating other mental disorders.
Julie’s course of treatment lasted six weeks. As a result, things changed significantly for her. Instead of taking a cocktail of psychotropic medications, she only takes one. Now that’s life-changing.
John Robison: An Engineer’s Emotional Awakening
A sound engineer, John Robison, diagnosed with Asperger’s, was used to hearing music through a blaring sound system, listening for its technical value. At the time, that was the extent to which he was able to feel.
His inability to identify emotions led him to success in the engineering world but left what he considered to be an integral part of the human condition missing.
Upon hearing about TMS, Robison was inspired.
‘“How cool is that?” To apply the technologies I used in rock’n roll sound systems to change the brain,” and at the same time, the goal of the study to maybe improve emotional insight as Alvero said, that spoke to the heart of something that I felt disabled me all my life. So I was fascinated and captivated by it.’
Since TMS is not yet approved by the FDA for Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum Disorders, Robison was part of a study where he was cared for by neurologist Alvaro Pasqual-Leone.
After the first few treatments, Robison was feeling something he hadn’t felt before--feelings.
The experience of reading emotions on people’s faces flooded him. Hearing stories about everyday stressors drove John Robison to tears. John Robison is still adjusting to his emotional repertoire but wouldn’t have it any other way.
Because of TMS, new doors have opened for him. Robison now has two books out, teaches at William and Mary University, and serves on a federal autism committee. Going from solo work to being described as a unifying force is something he never thought possible. With TMS, though, it was.
Measuring The Efficacy Of TMS
Since its inception in 1985, researchers have been studying TMS’s ability to heal various psychological illnesses. Here’s what we know--
According to Dr. Adam P. Stern, 50-60 percent of people who’ve suffered from treatment-resistant depression have had a positive experience with TMS. A third of those individuals achieved full remission, while the rest had a significant reduction in symptoms.
But like most options, the effects don’t always last forever. Some patients might consider going through what’s called re-induction if they begin to feel an onslaught of symptoms. Not to worry, though--not everyone requires a second boost. And when they do, it’s usually six months to a year after completing treatment.
While there isn’t much research on TMS’s effectiveness on other mental disorders, like PTSD and Asperger’s, but it’s hard to deny the stories of those who’ve gone through it successfully. If you’re still struggling despite the help you’re getting, look into TMS! It just might change your life.