What is TMS Therapy?

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

When it comes to treating mental illness, I definitely believe in medication. I believe in medication, but I was pretty surprised recently to learn about a scary side effect of one class of drugs some of my prescriptions are part of. The new knowledge made me want to start looking at treatment options I haven’t tried yet. I actually found one I haven’t tried that has decent outcomes, few side effects, and (most amazingly) is covered by insurance.

What is this promising new treatment? It’s called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS.

I had heard of TMS in the past, but I wrote it off when I found out there were few facilities that offered the treatment, and that insurance likely wouldn’t cover it (the same reasons I’ve written off ketamine infusions and vagal nerve stimulation). In the past few months, though, after starting to investigate treatment options again, I was surprised to find a TMS clinic in my area, and that the treatment would be covered by insurance.

After some time investigating, I started the paperwork to see if I could be approved to receive the treatment—and that approval came this week. I’m on the schedule to start treatment on Monday.

This post is to share some of what I’ve learned so far about what TMS treatment is. I want to post soon, as well, about what the research says. Mostly, though, I’m excited to be sharing some photos and videos of the process of getting TMS treatment—as well as the outcomes (which I hope will be positive)—soon. (I anticipate much of this will be via my Instagram account, @TheBlueandtheGold, if you’d like to follow along.) So here we go.

What is TMS?

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, uses electromagnetic pulses to stimulate brain connectivity. The treatment uses magnets like those used by MRI scanners. I don’t totally understand the science (even with doing a report on MRI machines for eighth-grade science), but how they work has to do with the electromagnetic pulses knocking electrons out of their orbit around atoms, then the energy the electrons release as they snap back into orbit.

Unlike a giant MRI scanner, though, TMS uses a small coil to send out these electromagnetic pulses. This coil is carefully positioned against a certain spot on your head (finding this spot is what I’ll be doing for my first appointment). The magnetic force used for TMS is on a much smaller scale than an MRI machine, too—small enough, according to the people at the clinic where I’ll be doing treatment, that you can use your phone or other electronics during treatment, as long as you don’t get it really close to the coil. You can also drive yourself to and from treatments (unlike with ECT, which uses general anesthesia, or ketamine infusions, since ketamine is an anesthetic and hallucinogen).  

The pulses from this coil stimulate connectivity between the neurons in your brain. The doctor I talked to said this makes sense since neurons communicate through their own self-generated electric pulses, called an action potential. To illustrate why this helps with depression, he showed me a picture of a PET scan you’ve probably seen somewhere like Pinterest (I had) that shows lower connectivity in a brain affected by depression (check out the link to see it).

So that’s what I understand about what’s going on. For a better, more scientific explanation of the treatment, though, I liked this presentation from Mass General Hospital:

Like I mentioned, I will do my first treatment on Monday! I was told that this appointment will be a bit longer. A doctor will be present for this one (with just a tech in the future), and they’ll be figuring out my settings for the machine. I found another video that shows what looks to be an interesting process to do that:

After this first treatment, I will be going every weekday for about an hour for about five weeks.

This treatment also, as far as we know, has very limited side effects. I recently wrote about how, when I underwent ECT treatment, I experienced memory loss. In contrast, talking with the people at the clinic that will be treating me, I’ve been told TMS can actually improve memory and cognition.

I don’t know exactly how this will turn out. I hope it will help improve my depression—and life. The clinic I’m working with cites a 75% improvement rate, though more scientific sources I’ve seen seem less optimistic. It is possible that this won’t work. I am hopeful it will.

So let’s find out.

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