Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) for PPD

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2023

Postpartum depression (PPD) is a common form of depression that affects about 1 in 7 mothers in the United States. While therapy and prescription drugs are the most typical treatments for PPD, there are various other treatments available. One of these is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).1

ECT is a treatment option that has shown promise in rapidly helping with severe PPD symptoms. It is most often used for people with severe PPD when other treatments have not worked.1,2

What is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)?

Electroconvulsive therapy is a medical procedure that involves stimulating the brain with electrical currents. It might sound intimidating, but ECT is a well-established and safe treatment option.2

Experts do not understand the exact way ECT helps people with mental health disorders. But they believe it may involve changes in brain chemistry and function.2

How does ECT work?

ECT is given in a hospital or outpatient clinic under the careful supervision of a trained medical team. During the procedure, you are given general anesthesia and muscle relaxants to relax your body. This means you will be asleep during the procedure and will not feel anything.2

Electrodes are then placed on your scalp, and a brief electric current is passed through the electrodes to your brain. The current causes a small seizure. This controlled seizure lasts for a minute or less. Throughout the procedure, the medical team closely monitors you.2

ECT is usually given in a series of sessions, typically a few times a week, over several weeks. The exact number of sessions and their frequency depend on each person’s condition and response to treatment.2

Before getting ECT, you will need to have some assessments done. These might include:2

  • Mental health assessment
  • Medical exam
  • Blood tests
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) to check your heart health

How can ECT help people with PPD?

ECT is an effective treatment for people with severe PPD or postpartum psychosis when therapy and medicine have not worked. Psychosis involves losing connection to reality, sometimes hearing or seeing things that are not there.1,3

An advantage of ECT for people with severe PPD is that it works very quickly. This is crucial for mothers who are experiencing:1,3

  • Psychotic features/symptoms
  • Not eating or drinking, leading to malnutrition
  • Thoughts of harming or killing themselves or their baby

ECT can provide relief in a matter of days or weeks. Other treatments may take much longer.1

Research into the effectiveness of ECT for postpartum depression is ongoing. But several studies have shown promising results. A 2018 study found that ECT was significantly more effective than fake (placebo) treatment in reducing depressive symptoms in those with PPD.3,4

What are the potential side effects?

ECT does have some side effects to be aware of. The most common side effects include temporary memory loss and temporary difficulty learning. In most cases, this gets better with time. On the day of treatment, people might have:1

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Headache

These are not all the possible side effects of ECT. Talk to your doctor about what to expect with ECT. You also should call your doctor if you have any changes that concern you about ECT.

Other things to know

Research has shown that it is safe to undergo anesthesia to have ECT while breastfeeding. You can begin breastfeeding again after the anesthesia has worn off.3

ECT offers hope for people with severe PPD. But they must consider its potential side effects, which can include short-term memory loss and confusion. Carefully discuss this treatment with your healthcare provider before deciding to have it. Together, you can weigh the benefits and risks of ECT treatment.1,2

If you or someone you know is struggling with PPD, talk to a healthcare provider to explore whether ECT is necessary.

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