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Shock Therapy for PTSD

written by: kmjones • edited by: Jacqueline Chinappi • updated: 12/17/2010

Shock therapy was first developed in the 1930s and is considered to be one of the most controversial treatments in medical practice. Although some studies have shown positive results, using shock therapy for PTSD is still a matter of some debate.

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    Shock Therapy in Context

    Also known as Electroconvulsive Therapy, shock therapy derived from the observation that some patients who had depression or schizophrenia, and also suffered from epilepsy, appeared to feel better after having a fit. With this in mind, doctors devised a method for passing an electrical current through the brain to induce a series of seizures. Although shock therapy was often misused in its early days, modern patients are given a muscle relaxant and anaesthetic before treatment.

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    When is it Used?

    Today, shock therapy is only used to treat specific mental illnesses. These are:

    • Severe depression
    • Severe mania
    • Catatonia
    • In some cases of schizophrenia.

    According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, shock therapy is most often used when other treatment options, such as antidepressants and other medications, have failed. It can be used, however, when a personally is dangerously close to committing suicide or when a life is in danger because a person is not eating or drinking enough.

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    Studies and Research

    Study A

    The 1999 study by Helsley et al investigated the impact of shock therapy for PTSD. Ms. A , a 35 year old woman, developed PTSD after active duty in the Persian Gulf War. Her symptoms consisted of flashbacks, nightmares and an ability to feel emotionally close to her family. After medication and psychotherapy had failed, Ms A. felt suicidal and was offered shock therapy.

    After receiving three treatments of shock therapy, Ms A. reported feeling better. Her depression, emotional numbness and intrusive thoughts had all decreased. After a sixth session, Ms A. ceased shock therapy treatment.

    Study B

    In the 2005 study by Margoob et al, twenty adults with severe, chronic and unresponsive (to antidepressants) PTSD were treated with shock therapy. Although three patients did not complete the course of six shock therapy treatments, the results showed a significant decrease in both their depression scores and their CAPS scores (Clinician-Administered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Scale).

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    Is Shock Therapy Safe?

    Using shock therapy for PTSD can cause a number of side effects.

    In the short-term, these can include:

    • Headache
    • Aching muscles
    • Confusion
    • Temporary loss of memory

    Medical professionals are particularly concerned about the potential of severe, long-term effects from shock therapy. Although they only affect around one in ten people, they include permanent memory loss and a feeling of personality change after the treatment.

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    Considerations

    More evidence is needed to determine the exact effectiveness of shock therapy for PTSD patients. Existing studies have shown that shock therapy may help to alleviate some symptoms of PTSD, such as severe depression and suicidial feelings. However, due to its potential side-effects, shock therapy should only be used in extreme cases and when other medical options have failed.

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    References

    HealthyPlace: ECT (Shock Therapy) - How it Works

    Mental Health America: Electroconvulsive Therapy

    Psychiatry Online: ECT Therapy in PTSD

    Royal College of Psychiatrists: Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

    U.S. National Library of Medicine: Efficacy of ECT

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    Sample contents.