What are the risks and side-effects of ECT?
The greatest risk with ECT is associated with the anaesthetic, which has a very small risk of death (often quoted as one in 100,000). Like any procedure involving an anaesthetic, ECT involves this small amount of risk, but overall, it is regarded as a very safe treatment. Despite the myths about ECT causing brain damage, MRI studies have shown that it does not change the brain anatomy in any way, as the strength of the electrical current is too low to harm brain tissue.
Immediate effects of ECT may include:
- loss of memory about the events immediately before and after ECT
- heart rhythm disturbances
- low blood pressure
- sore muscles, aching jaw
Generally, these resolve within a few hours, although some memory loss may persist.
Some people who have undergone ECT recommend writing down passwords, PINs, phone numbers and special dates, and keeping them in a safe place in case they cannot be recalled in the period after the treatment.
A common and significant side-effect is difficulties with memory – this is reported by at least one in three people1 who have ECT. It can be hard to work out which memory changes are caused by ECT and which by the mental health condition itself – but ECT may lead to both loss of memories or difficulty in creating new memories.
Most research demonstrates that memory loss is very restricted and usually temporary. However, memory changes may last for some weeks after treatment and a few people experience long-term or even permanent loss of memories. People differ in the amount of memory loss they report from ECT and how they feel about it. The more treatments a person has, the greater the effect on their memory and, if the ECT is bilateral rather than unilateral, is likely to affect a person’s memory more as well. While some people find ECT to be a beneficial and lifesaving treatment, others find their memory loss distressing and for them, this outweighs any benefit from ECT.