The History Of Electric Shock Therapy

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 19, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

Electric shock therapy has a long and controversial history as a treatment for many mental health issues. Infamously depicted in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, electric shock therapy has gained a reputation as a brutal and inhumane punishment for those struggling with their mental health.

This film does indeed portray the reality of a small portion of patients from the early days of electric shock therapy treatment. Even so, the dramatic portrayal of electric shock therapy differs immensely from how the treatment has typically been administered, especially from how it is used in hospitals currently.

Today, electric shock therapy has been shelved in favor of talk therapy and more effective medications. Although it is no longer used as commonly as it was in the past, shock therapy for depression, schizophrenia, mania, and dementia is still widely used by mental health professionals when other types of treatment fail.

So, first, what is shock therapy?

What Is Shock Therapy?

Electric shock therapy sometimes called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), is a procedure that sends minor electric currents through a patient’s brain. By deliberately causing a short seizure, electric shock therapy attempts to alter a patient’s brain chemistry with the intent of lessening the effects of a specific disorder, if not curing them entirely.

Before electric shock therapy can be administered, a series of tests and examinations must take place. First, the patient and doctor must discuss and explore the available treatment options for their disorder. Next, medical health professionals will determine if electric shock therapy is right for that patient by collecting a complete medical history and conducting a complete physical exam, psychiatric assessment, and an electrocardiogram to ensure that the patient’s heart is healthy enough for this treatment. A treatment plan will be constructed, and then the first procedure can occur.

Patients will be put under general anesthesia at each session, fitted with an IV, and given a muscle relaxant before a nurse readies the procedure’s electrodes.

Electric shock therapy is completed over several sessions. These sessions are often administered over two to four weeks, at a rate of up to three sessions per week. Most sessions take between five and ten minutes, but preparation and recovery time can extend treatment time.

Electric Shock Therapy Of The Past

Electric shock therapy has changed and developed over its life as a medical treatment. For instance, shock therapy for depression has its origins in the eighteenth-century, when the London Medical Journal cited intentional seizure induction as a treatment for various psychiatric disorders. However, it wasn’t until the late 1930s when an Italian physician invented electric shock therapy, paving the way for the treatment as the public understands it today.

Rising to prominence as a treatment for depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders, electric shock therapy soon became common in hospitals and psychiatric facilities worldwide. Before this, Metrazol’s medication was used to induce seizures medically, but the process was often traumatizing. In search of a safer and less upsetting option, doctors and medical researchers began to explore other avenues for achieving similar results; electric shock soon became an easy solution to this problem.

Originally touted as a more humane manner of achieving these results, the electric shock therapy of the 1940s and 1950s was often just as terrifying as Metrazol’s seizures.

Patients also experienced intense side effects associated with the treatment. During this period, electric shock therapy side effects often included severe memory loss and broken or fractured bones. Patients also reported long-term and debilitating confusion. Electric shock therapy was often administered without anesthesia or muscle relaxants, so patients were conscious throughout the procedure. Little action was taken to mitigate these and other negative side effects of the treatment.

At psychiatric facilities, the terror of electric shock therapy was increased when it was used as a tool for abuse. In some hospitals and asylums, difficult patients were threatened with this treatment or received non-compliance punishment. This abusive behavior increased the stigma surrounding electric shock therapy and led the general public and mental health professionals alike to renounce the treatment.

Current Uses For Electric Shock Therapy

However, once modified and regulated, electric shock therapy is no more dangerous than any other medical procedure. As used today, electric shock therapy can help address various conditions that do not respond to other treatment methods.

  • Shock Therapy For Depression: Individuals with severe forms of depression may find relief in electric shock therapy. Depression may be accompanied by psychosis or intense suicidal ideation. Depression that is resistant to medications and other treatment also makes an ideal candidate for shock therapy.
  • Mania: Often a symptom of bipolar disorder, this state of hyperactivity can result in impulsive and unsafe decision-making, uncharacteristic behavior, use of drugs or alcohol, or a disconnect from reality. Electric shock therapy can be used to decrease the intensity of these episodes.
  • Schizophrenia: Electric shock therapy can be effective in treating some of the symptoms of disorders like schizophrenia. For instance, catatonia, a symptom of schizophrenia, can result in a lack of movement and speech; other illnesses also cause it. This symptom can be effectively treated by electric shock therapy, reducing the disorder’s effect on a patient’s life.
  • Dementia: Although not used to treat dementia itself, electric shock therapy can be used to address the anxiety and hostility often associated with dementia.

In general, doctors and mental health professionals will only use electric shock therapy as a last resort for patients that have not experienced any relief through all other available treatment options. Extensive medical tests are completed before treatment begins, and a team of experienced health professionals monitors the treatment itself closely.

Physicians recommend that patients continue taking psychiatric medications to enhance the effects of electric shock therapy and lower the chance of relapsing once treatment has ended.

Electric Shock Therapy Side Effects

Like almost all medical procedures, electric shock therapy does have a few notable side effects, although it is largely considered by medical professionals to be safe for patients. Additionally, unlike the past electric shock therapy, today’s treatments are much safer and more comfortable for patients.

Common electric shock therapy side effects include:

Memory Loss: After treatment, some patients may struggle to recall events from the day of treatment and the few weeks or months before treatment. Called retrograde amnesia, this side effect typically improves within a few months after the treatment course is finished. Although extremely rare, permanent long-term memory loss has been reported as a side effect of electric shock therapy. Patients may struggle to remember the years leading up to treatment. Again, this extent of memory loss is extremely uncommon.

Confusion: In the first few minutes or hours after the treatment, patients may feel unsure about their identities, their relationships, or their reason for being at the hospital. This side effect often dissipates shortly, although older adults may experience more profound or longer-lasting confusion.

Medical Issues: Individuals with preexisting heart conditions may want to avoid electric shock therapy. This treatment may cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, potentially triggering more serious heart problems. Additionally, as is common in any procedure that requires anesthesia, further complications may occur.

Physical Issues: Directly after electric shock therapy, some patients may experience physical side effects, such as nausea, headaches, jaw tension, or muscle pains. These side effects are typically short-lived and can be treated with over-the-counter medications. They do not typically last longer than the time of the treatment course.

Patients should work closely with their doctors to monitor their side effects and track their progress.

What To Do Next

After learning what shock therapy is and how its side effects could manifest, and its current and past uses, individuals may feel that electric shock therapy is right. Patients should be sure to consult their doctors to discuss the treatment course that is right for them and their specific disorder.

However, the first step for someone experiencing depression or other mental health issues should seek a licensed therapist’s aid. MyTherapist is an inclusive, accessible, and inexpensive service that allows you to bypass common barriers to accessing mental health services.

After completing a short questionnaire, MyTherapist can match you with a credentialed therapist who can address your needs on your time by providing effective and personalized counseling through your computer, tablet, or phone. Clients can receive counseling through written messages, live chats, phone conversations, and video conferences; you can choose the method that best suits your availability and comfort level. Users are invited to maintain anonymity, and everything shared with counselors is protected under federal law.

Don’t wait. Head over to MyTherapist to get the help you need.

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