Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure in which electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses. It often works when other treatments are unsuccessful.

Much of the stigma attached to ECT is based on early treatments in which high doses of electricity were administered without anesthesia, leading to memory loss, fractured bones and other serious side effects.

ECT is much safer today and is given to people while they're under general anesthesia. Although ECT still causes some side effects, it now uses electrical currents given in a controlled setting to achieve the most benefit with the fewest possible risks.


Why it's done Risks How you prepare What you can expect Results

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can provide rapid, significant improvements in severe symptoms of a number of mental health conditions. It may be an effective treatment in someone who is suicidal, for instance, or end an episode of severe mania. ECT is used to treat:

  • Severe depression, particularly when accompanied by detachment from reality (psychosis), a desire to commit suicide or refusal to eat.
  • Treatment-resistant depression, a severe depression that doesn't improve with medications or other treatments.
  • Severe mania, a state of intense euphoria, agitation or hyperactivity that occurs as part of bipolar disorder. Other signs of mania include impaired decision making, impulsive or risky behavior, substance abuse, and psychosis.
  • Catatonia, characterized by lack of movement, fast or strange movements, lack of speech, and other symptoms. It's associated with schizophrenia and some other psychiatric disorders. In some cases, catatonia is caused by a medical illness.
  • Agitation and aggression in people with dementia, which can be difficult to treat and negatively affect quality of life.

ECT may be a good treatment option when medications aren't tolerated or other forms of therapy haven't worked. In some cases ECT is used:

  • During pregnancy, when medications can't be taken because they might harm the developing fetus
  • In older adults who can't tolerate drug side effects
  • In people who prefer ECT treatments over taking medications
  • When ECT has been successful in the past
© 1998-2015 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. Terms of use