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What is electroconvulsive therapy?

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure that causes a brief convulsion by passing an electric current through the brain. It is used to treat some mental disorders and is a very effective and safe treatment for depression that uses electricity to trigger a seizure.

Electroconvulsive therapy procedures are most often performed in a hospital operating or recovery room while the patient is asleep and under general anesthesia. The patient receives medicine to relax them, put them briefly to sleep and prevent them from feeling pain.

A small amount of electric current is then delivered to the patient’s head to cause seizure activity in the brain. It lasts for about 40 seconds. They then receive medicine to prevent the seizure from spreading throughout their body. As a result, there will be only slight movement of their hands or feet during the procedure. ECT is usually given once every two to five days for a total of six to 12 sessions, but sometimes more sessions are needed.

ECT is one of the safest and most effective treatments for depression that does not respond fully to medication. After a successful course of ECT, a patient will receive medication or less frequent ECT treatments to reduce the risk of another depressive episode.

Our approach

The ECT Program at Zucker Hillside Hospital is among the oldest, most experienced and active in the nation. Our compassionate and expert staff consist of ECT-credentialed psychiatrists, anesthesiologists, ACLS-certified nurses and support staff. In addition to its clinical mission, the ECT program at Zucker Hillside is a national resource for teaching ECT to students and physicians at all professional levels and conducts research aimed at improving outcomes.

Why it’s done

ECT is a highly effective treatment for depression, most commonly severe depression. It can be especially helpful for treating depression in patients who:

  • Are having delusions or other psychotic symptoms with their depression
  • Are pregnant and severely depressed
  • Are suicidal
  • Cannot take antidepressant drugs
  • Have not responded fully to antidepressant drugs

Less often, electroconvulsive therapy treatment is used for conditions such as mania, catatonia and psychosis that do not improve enough with other treatments.


ECT has received bad press, in part for its potential effects on memory. Since the electroconvulsive therapy procedure was introduced in the 1930s, the dose of electricity used in ECT has been decreased significantly. This has greatly reduced the side effects of this procedure.

However, electroconvulsive therapy can still cause some side effects, including:

  • Confusion that lasts for a short period of time
  • Headache
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension) or high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Memory loss (permanent memory loss beyond the time of the procedure itself is much less common than it was in the past)
  • Muscle soreness
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) or other heart problems

Some medical conditions put patients at greater risk for side effects from ECT. Discuss your medical conditions and any concerns with your doctor when deciding whether ECT is right for you.

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