Want to feel better without medication? The answer might be magnets.
Want to feel better without medication? The answer might be magnets.

Want to feel better without medication? The answer might be magnets.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation treats major depression and OCD without medication or invasive procedures. Read on to see if you might benefit from this state-of-the-art treatment.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is an FDA-cleared treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that’s safe, effective, and well-tolerated by most patients. During the treatment session, a TMS device sends magnetic pulses to specific parts of the brain to change nerve cell activity. It’s typically used when other treatments fail.

Illustration of messy, scribbled brain next to smooth brain
Illustration by Joseph Moore

Around 10 years ago, psychologist Charles Ihrig, Ph.D., President and Founder of Athena Care, learned about TMS from a patient. This patient asked about “a treatment with magnets” for his depression. Dr. Ihrig was skeptical at first and thought, “Yeah, we could try chicken bones and crystals, too.” Magnets seemed unlikely to treat anything, much less persistent symptoms of depression.

However, after reviewing the clinical research, Dr. Ihrig was “astounded” by how effective TMS was for people for whom multiple medications proved ineffective. He said, “It appeared life changing. I referred that patient for TMS treatment, and it was exactly that – life changing.  I referred a few more patients, all of whom showed great improvement and most achieved remission after years of struggle and no results.”

Seeing patient after patient benefit from TMS convinced Dr. Ihrig that it is an effective and important treatment option that should become part of his practice.

What Is TMS Treatment Like?

While you relax in a chair, the TMS magnet rests on your head. It sends magnetic pulses to specific parts of your brain. These pulses pass through your skull and into your brain without distortion, which allows your doctor to focus the stimulation on areas that have likely been under-active during depression or otherwise affected by OCD. You remain awake and alert throughout the session.

TMS treatments usually occur 5 days per week for 4-6 weeks and each session lasts approximately 20 minutes.

During treatment, you sit comfortably and can read, watch TV or use your phone. You’ll hear a clicking sound and feel a tapping sensation as the magnetic pulses are released.

Afterward, you can drive yourself home and immediately resume your normal activities.

Why Choose TMS Instead of Other Treatments?

TMS may be more effective than medications and it has virtually none of the side effects. Dr. Ihrig explains, “Medication is systemic, meaning you swallow a pill and it has to work through your digestive and circulatory system before getting to the area of need in your brain. This causes wide-ranging side effects, such as reduced libido, changes in thinking, changes in appetite and gastric upset, etc.”

 “TMS has none of those symptoms. The most common side effect is a mild headache during the first few treatments that is generally tolerated.”

Is TMS Safe?

More than 100 clinical trials have demonstrated the safety of TMS. The FDA first approved TMS to treat depression in 2008 and OCD in 2018. TMS uses similar technology to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which also has a long-term safety record. TMS causes few (if any) side effects and is well tolerated by patients.

TMS is not appropriate for people who have the following:

  • Implanted metallic devices in the skull
  • Non-removable metallic objects in or around the head (some tattoos and permanent eyeliners have metallic components in the dyes used)
  • Implants controlled by physiological signals (vagus nerve stimulators, cardioverter defibrillators, pacemakers)

Note: Metallic dental work doesn’t prohibit a person from receiving TMS treatment.

A Story of Hope

Going back to TMS changing patients’ lives, Dr. Ihrig recalled, “I had a therapy patient who had been coming to me for years. He struggled with daily thoughts of suicide. He said he just always knew that’s how his life would end. He had lost pleasure in most things, including his lifelong hobby of performing magic.” Traditional treatments didn’t improve his symptoms or reduce his suffering.

“After TMS treatment, he talked about not having those [suicidal] thoughts. One day in therapy, he came to a session and did a magic trick for me. The trick involved a story of how he was a new person after treatment. It suddenly occurred to me – he had never shared his passion with me like that in years of therapy!” He was like a new person, indeed.

“I treasure that trick he performed. He let me keep the string he used, and it’s still on my corkboard in front of my desk.”

Stories like this give hope to people suffering from mental health disorders that don’t respond to medication or traditional treatments.

Next Steps

If you think you or someone you love might benefit from TMS treatment for depression or OCD, call your primary care doctor or contact Athena Care to discuss your specific situation, review the qualification requirements, and learn about treatment options.

Photo of Rachel Swan
Rachel Swan, MS

Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.