Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a psychiatric treatment that can cause a number of different side effects. Many patients report some degree of temporary memory loss, and others suffer from headaches or confusion after the treatment is finished. Some patients can develop more severe side effects including bone fractures or pneumonia. Although ECT is generally considered to be a fairly safe procedure, patients with heart disease and underlying neurologic conditions should be fully evaluated before receiving this treatment, as they are at increased risk for developing serious side effects.
One of the most common electroconvulsive therapy side effects reported by patients is memory loss. One type of memory loss is termed retrograde amnesia, and these patients have trouble remembering events that occurred over a certain period of time in the past. Other patients report problems remembering things that happen after the treatment, a problem called anterograde amnesia. Typically the memory loss is not severe, and patients are able to remember important details about themselves and their lives, losing only memories about events or facts that didn’t involve them on a personal level. Patients typically regain the ability to fully remember events in weeks to months after the therapy occurred.
Neurologic problems other than memory loss can also be seen as electroconvulsive therapy side effects. Many patients report having a mild headache after the therapy is completed. Other patients appear to be confused or disoriented for minutes to hours after the procedure.
Some other minor electroconvulsive therapy side effects can affect patients for a short period after the treatment finishes. Feeling nauseated, and even vomiting, is a common adverse effect. If patients are not fully protected by a dental bite guard, they might bite their tongue during the administration of the electroconvulsive therapy, resulting in pain and irritation after the procedure.
Other electroconvulsive therapy side effects are rarer, but can be serious. Patients with osteoporosis who are not secured sufficiently during the procedure could fracture a bone from the shock administration. Occasionally patients can aspirate the contents of the stomach as a result of having an altered level of consciousness during the procedure. This could result in pneumonia, an infection of the lung.
Certain patients are not good candidates for ECT due to their increased risk for electroconvulsive therapy side effects. Patients with heart diseases including severe heart valve problems, known coronary artery disease, and significant heart failure are at an increased risk for having a heart attack during the procedure, so electroconvulsive therapy is typically not recommended for these patients. If a patient has a known neurological condition such as a brain tumor or a recent stroke, he or she should be evaluated by a specialist before undergoing ECT in order to prevent complications.