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What is Shock Therapy?

By Katie Kelley
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Shock therapy, also known as electroshock therapy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or electroconvulsive shock therapy, is a controversial type of therapy given to patients suffering from often untreatable mental conditions. It consists of a series of electric shocks to the body. More specifically, electrodes are attached to the body, often the head, and when electrical pulses are sent to the patient via the wires, a seizure or series of seizures is induced. Individuals who undergo ECT often receive anywhere from six to 15 sessions of electrical currents to the brain within a series of treatments. Depending on the individual, several series of electroshock therapy sessions may be prescribed.

Shock therapy is said to have been first applied in ancient times. Centuries ago, eels were used to intentionally shock people to address a variety of health issues including headaches and other mental problems.

In the mid to late-1930s, two Italian psychiatrists, Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini, brought ECT into more common practice. They first experimented with it on animals. It has been a widely distributed theory that Cerletti witnessed pigs being electrically shocked before undergoing slaughter to calm them. From that, Cerletti believed that a similar method could be applied to humans suffering from mental illnesses. From there, the form of therapy was introduced as a form of medicine, and during the 1940s and 1950s, it was used with more regularity than it is today.

Currently, shock therapy is used in the United States and in a variety of countries around the world to treat depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other variances of mental disease. Typically, it is used only after alternative therapies and medications have not produced relief for the patient. The use of electroshock, while legal in the US, is strictly regulated and met with controversy. It's use has dwindled since the 1960s.

A number of side effects are associated with the use of this type of therapy. Several of these side effects range from mild headaches and body aches to memory loss and brain damage. The most common side effect is memory loss. Despite the controversy, ECT has been known to produce measurable effects in people for whom less invasive or less controversial forms of therapy have proven ineffective.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Vincenzo — On Jul 28, 2014

@Markerrag -- Like the article says, the use of electroshock therapy has dwindled since the 1960s and it is my understanding that a lot of those medications you mentioned achieve the same things that people who used shock therapy wanted to achieve.

Still, there are times when medications just won't work. You don't find electroshock therapy in use just a whole lot anywhere, but the practice still goes on as kind of a last ditch attempt.

By Markerrag — On Jul 27, 2014

It is very surprising to learn this kind of therapy is in use anywhere. Using shock therapy may have made some kind of sense back before drugs were developed to take care of a lot of psychological ailments, but the use of it seems downright primitive these days.

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