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What is Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation is an experimental clinical procedure that may be effective at relieving symptoms of mood disorders. During therapy, a machine is used to transmit painless magnetic pulses through the brain in hopes of stimulating neurons in the areas that govern mood and depression. Patients usually undergo about five treatments a week for about six weeks. The risks and benefits of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation are still not entirely known, but many experts believe that with ongoing research the procedure will become a promising standard remedy for depression in the near future.

In most instances, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation is not the first choice of treatment. Doctors usually suggest psychological counseling and proven anti-depression or anti-anxiety medications to see if symptoms improve. If a patient's problems do not go away in a few months, a doctor may schedule a consultation to discuss repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation in detail. A neurology expert will explain the procedure and outline possible risks during the initial consultation. A complete medical and family history is reviewed to make sure the patient does not have an underlying seizure disorder and is not on medications that may alter the results of testing.

The patient is seated in a comfortable chair for the duration of the first treatment session, which typically takes about one hour. A plastic device called a treatment coil is then placed gently on the scalp and turned on. Wires inside the coil generate a pulsating magnetic field that penetrates the skull and stimulates neurons in the brain. The doctor may need to adjust the intensity of the field if the patient's facial muscles start twitching or if he or she reports discomfort.

After a repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation session, the patient is allowed to leave the doctor's office under his or her own power. No restrictions need to be set on driving, activity, or eating. Most people are scheduled for five weekly sessions for four to six weeks, during which time they are asked to document any perceived changes in their moods. Many patients start feeling better in the first two weeks, and some are entirely symptom-free by the time their course of treatment is finished.

For most people, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation is painless and does not cause any other uncomfortable symptoms. Some patients develop headaches, mild nausea, and lightheadedness during or immediately after a session. There is also a small risk of the procedure inducing a seizure. Current research suggests there is little to no risk of long-term effects.

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