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Magnetic Stimulation Therapy Can Help Patients with Chronic Depression

Isolation, stress and fear related to the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled the need for more mental health services. For people experiencing persistent, severe depression, magnetic energy may offer some relief. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a noninvasive treatment that uses electromagnetic pulses to stimulate areas of the brain that are underactive in depressed patients.

The electromagnetic pulses specifically treat the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is a region of the brain most consistently affected in major depressive disorder.

“We know through research that people with depression have decreased levels of activity in that area of the brain,” said Kirk Bergmark, APRN, director of operations for behavioral health at Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital. “The magnetic stimulation through TMS causes a depolarization and release of neurotransmitters, which helps normalize neurons in other areas of the brain tied to mood regulation.”

In layman’s terms, the treatment essentially helps “reset” the neurons and provides patients with relief from their depression symptoms. Stimulating this specific area of the brain can have a lasting effect on neurotransmitter levels, resulting in long-term remission from depression symptoms.

Since antidepressant medications have to travel through your entire body, they can produce unwanted side effects. One of the benefits of TMS is that it treats depression at the source using a precise magnetic pulse, thus avoiding side effects.

“The statement I often hear is, ‘I feel like myself again’”, said Mona Lal, MD, psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital. “Patients will talk about feeling lighter or like a fog has lifted.”

Patients treated with TMS therapy stay awake during the procedure. The treatment takes place over a span of eight weeks, with patients going five days a week for six weeks, then three times a week for two weeks. Each treatment takes about 20-25 minutes. It is an outpatient procedure with almost no side effects and no recovery time. A patient can drive themselves to and from their appointment and go about their lives as normal. Some patients report discomfort at the treatment site which can be mitigated with ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

After a few weeks of daily treatment, many patients find their depression is easier to manage, even without antidepressants. TMS therapy is available by prescription only and is administered under the supervision of a psychiatrist. TMS is offered at Northwestern Memorial HospitalNorthwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, and Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital.