I read about a new treatment for depression that involves magnets. Can you explain?


You’re most likely referring to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This procedure involves placing electromagnetic coils on the scalp of a person suffering from depression to deliver targeted pulses that stimulate the part of the brain responsible for mood. Earplugs are worn to protect the patient’s hearing, as the machine emits a loud clicking sound.

TMS is non-invasive and has been around for several years. It was first approved by the FDA in 2008 for the treatment of depression, and a growing number of psychiatrists have begun using this treatment. It is a treatment—not a cure—for depression and can be used in conjunction with medications and traditional therapies or as an alternative to these. It is generally used on people who have tried two or more antidepressants unsuccessfully or who are intolerant of other medications. Insurance may pay for TMS if other treatment options have failed.

Benefits of TMS: TMS is well-tolerated and doesn’t involve anesthesia or any other medication. More than 35 randomized, controlled studies have shown that it is both safe and effective. TMS seems to work as well as antidepressants, and there are a few studies that show it may treat depression where medication has failed.

Downside of TMS: It is time-consuming. Treatment generally takes 45 minutes a day, five days a week, for six weeks. It is offered in some psychiatrists’ offices as an outpatient procedure, and in many psychiatric hospitals as both inpatient or outpatient procedures. All that treatment can be expensive (about $5,000 to $12,000 for an entire course) if your insurance won’t cover it. Side effects are mild and fleeting but may include headache, scalp irritation, facial twitches and lightheadedness.

Caution: Because TMS produces a magnetic field, the treatment cannot be used on people with metal in or near the head, including cochlear implants, aneurysm clips, stents, pacemakers or other electrical devices. (Dental fillings and braces are OK.) Tell your doctor if you are pregnant…take prescription medications…have a history of seizures, mental health disorders, severe headaches or substance abuse…or have brain damage due to stroke, illness or injury. Steer clear of devices sold online that claim to treat depression with magnets. These are not proven to be safe or effective. Only a medical doctor can administer TMS.

Editor’s Note: While most people realize if they are suffering from severe depression, there can be a milder form that causes subtle feelings of discontent. To find out if you’re at risk, take this self-test.

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