When meds alone don’t work, try a magnetic field

gettyimages 481478084 When meds alone don’t work, try a magnetic field

31-year-old Nicholas O’Madden, who suffers from anxiety and depression, uses his smart phone as he receives treatment with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy, which uses a large magnet to stimulate certain parts of the brain to alleviate depressive symptoms at TMS Health Solutions in Sacramento, Calif. (Randy Pench/Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images)

By Jonathan Kaupanger

There’s a different tool at the VA to fight Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) in veterans whose symptoms don’t improve with antidepressant medication. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is non-invasive and uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to lessen symptoms of depression.

TMS is done in a doctor’s office and unlike electroconvulsive therapy, TMS doesn’t cause seizures or require sedation or anesthesia.  A coil is placed against the patients head and a series of quick, highly-focused magnetic pulses are emitted, each lasting only three-tenths of a second.  Treatments take about 45 minutes and usually happen five days a week for a four to six week period. The electromagnetic stimulation, research shows, restores brain activity to non-depressed levels.

The FDA approved process involves 3,000 pulses per day for five days a week. The VA was part of a two site study in 2014 that increased the pulses to 9,000 per day for only three weeks.  41 patents were enrolled in the study and each person was in the middle of a suicidal crisis.  All were receiving medication and counseling during the study.

The study was a blind study, 20 in the TMS group, 21 in the sham group. Staff didn’t know who was in which group either, until after the first day.  The group receiving TMS quickly became un-suicidal, so it quickly became obvious who was in which group.

gettyimages 175697813 When meds alone don’t work, try a magnetic field

An illustration published in The Boston Globe  shows how transcranial magnetic stimulation works. Researchers are exploring what the noninvasive technique can teach them about autism, and whether it could be a treatment. (David Butler/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

According to the study, after three days both groups scored close to the same in the Beck Scale of Suicidal Ideation.  Counseling and medication worked, but adding TMS to the process made recovery happen quicker.  It took nine months for the sham group to reach identical levels as the TMS group.

Side effects are basically mild to moderate and improve after individual sessions and will continue to decrease over time. They include headache, scalp discomfort, tingling, spasms or twitching of facial muscles and lightheadedness.  Serious side effects are rare but include seizures, mania – mainly in people with bipolar disorder and if there is inadequate ear protection during the treatment, some hearing loss has been reported.  More studies are needed to figure out any long-term effects.

About 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have either post-traumatic stress (PTS) or major depression. TMS isn’t meant to be used in place of medication or counseling, but is intended to be a quick and effective treatment  for patients in crisis.  The idea is that TMS will buy enough time to stabilize a patient and get them through a crisis.

If you or someone you know is having a mental health crisis you can call the VA’s Veterans’ Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 then press 1. You can also chat live online with a councilor by going to the Veterans Crisis Line website.

Connect: @JonathanVets1 | Jonathan@ConnectingVets.com


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