Traditional treatment for PTSD involves some combination of antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications and psychotherapy. For some patients, this treatment protocol can be effective, especially when therapies like eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) and exposure therapy are included in the treatment plan. However, a large percentage of patients are not adequately helped with the traditional therapeutic approach, particularly regarding the psychotropic medications. In many cases, the antidepressants are not only ineffective, but only worsen the problem by causing unacceptable side effects.
A recent technological development, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), is demonstrating excellent treatment results for individuals with PTSD, as well as major depressive disorder and co-occurring PTSD. TMS uses powerful magnetic fields to produce changes in the activity of neurons and ultimately reset, or normalize, brain chemistry.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health disorder that features three primary cluster symptoms—re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyper-arousal. The disorder is brought on by having experienced or witnessed a startling event, such as:
- Combat stress
- Serious auto accident or plane crash
- A violent assault, physical or sexual
- Sudden death of a loved one
- Terrorist attack
- A serious medical diagnosis
In general, people are fairly resilient and can eventually process the trauma and move forward with life. In those with PTSD, dwelling on the trauma, or reliving it through nightmares or triggers, can paralyze the individual with fear, dread, depression, and anxiety for a very prolonged period.
Symptoms of PTSD
Individuals who experience the following symptoms for longer than three months, causing feelings of deep distress and a disruption in normal activities, may have PTSD:
- Intrusive thoughts, such as disturbing memories, nightmares, or vivid flashbacks of the event.
- Avoidance behaviors, such as avoiding the people, places, or situations that remind the individual of the traumatic event. They may attempt to avoid discussing it, remember it, or thinking about it as much as possible.
- Negative thoughts and feelings, such as the irrational belief that no one can be trusted, or saying negative things about themselves. They experience fear, anger, guilt, and shame, and avoid activities once enjoyed.
- Hyper-arousal symptoms, including being easily startled, over-reacting to stimuli, being irritable and angry, struggling with insomnia, and difficulty concentrating.
How Does TMS Work?
TMS is a noninvasive alternative treatment method that uses electro/magnetic forces to stimulate targeted brain regions or systems that are underactive. The magnetic pulses are created by an MRI-like technology, delivered through the scalp and into the brain. The resulting electrical currents then act to stimulate the neurons.
Patients do not need to be sedated during the treatment sessions, eliminating a source of potential risk. In fact, the treatments are well tolerated by patients, with few side effects noted. As the sessions proceed, patients will begin to notice positive changes in overall mood, energy, concentration, and sleep quality as a result of the normalizing of the brain chemistry.
TMS Treatment Sessions Described
Due to the fact that no general anesthesia is needed for TMS therapy, patients can sit comfortably while fully alert during the treatment sessions. Prior to the session, the doctor will determine the level of frequency to use and the specific location of the brain to be targeted. A coil is then positioned on the patient’s scalp, and they will experience a light tapping sensation during the session. Many patients pass the time by reading, watching television, or listening to music or podcasts during treatment.
After the TMS session, the patient will be able to leave immediately, as there is no recovery period needed. They can drive themselves and resume all regular daily activities with no down time. Treatment sessions last about 40 minutes, and they are scheduled Monday through Friday for 4-6 weeks.