Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is the oldest among the early biological treatments introduced in psychiatry, and the only one still in use. In this paper we attempt a brief presentation of ECT usage over the last 80 years, since it was originally introduced. It is a safe, well-tolerated, and highly effective treatment option for major psychiatric disorders, such as mood disorders and schizophrenia, especially when there is an acute exacerbation of psychotic symptoms or if catatonic symptoms are prominent. ECT has also been used successfully for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, delirium, neuroleptic malignant syndrome, autism and agitation and depression in demented patients. There are no absolute contraindications. However, it is considered a high risk procedure for patients with increased intracranial pressure, recent myocardial infarction, recent cerebral hemorrhage or stroke, vascular aneurysm, retinal detachment and pheocromocytoma. Modern genetic and neuroimaging techniques have helped clarify possible mechanisms of action of ECT, but much remains unknown. Improvement of this method through a number of technical advancements has contributed in the reduction of side effects. Thus, modified ECT is currently considered as an effective and safe form of treatment even in vulnerable populations such as the geriatric patients, the adolescents and the pregnant patients. The mortality rate is very low, comparable to that of a minor anesthetic procedure. The most common adverse events are headache, nausea, myalgias and postictal delirium while the most severe are the cardiovascular side effects. Of note, the cognitive side effects especially amnesia, although transient, has been the focus of skepticism against the treatment. Major psychiatric disorders are chronic, recurring disorders. The relapse rate after a successful course of ECT without any intervention is extremely high. Pharmacotherapy or continuation ECT reduces equally the relapse rate up to 40%. Continuation and maintenance ECT, in combination with pharmacotherapy, have been successfully used in preventing relapse and recurrence. Gradual tapering off acute ECT treatments and individualized continuation and maintenance ECT treatments based on the needs of each patient seems the optimum clinical practice. Conclusively, despite impressive new developments in pharmacotherapy and in biological non pharmacological treatments ECT remains a valuable, irreplaceable treatment option for debilitating, resistant major psychiatric disorders.
Key words: Electroconvulsive therapy, major psychiatric disorders, indications, efficacy.
S.C. Kaliora, I.M. Zervas, G.N. Papadimitriou (page 291)