TMS Therapy (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation)

Though transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) sounds like something used in an old Frankenstein movie, it is actually a legitimate treatment for depression. This may be good news for those who are diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) and have not been helped by the prevailing medications.

The TMS patient has an electromagnet placed on their scalp, in the prefrontal cortex area. The magnet generates pulses that pass through skin and bone without distortion. Because the pulses remain focused, they can stimulate targeted areas in the cerebral cortex related to mood. One round of this treatment involves five sessions per week for four to six weeks.

Pros and Cons

A welcome aspect of TMS is the absence of side effects that attend the use of some antidepressant medications. There have been no reports of dry mouth, weight gain, nausea, sexual dysfunction, or lethargy related to the treatments. No anesthesia or sedation is required, and there is no record of problems with concentration or memory impairment resulting from TMS.

Some clients report feeling discomfort during the TMS procedure. Mild to moderate scalp discomfort may be experienced, especially during the first few treatments. Only 5% of TMS clients have discontinued treatment because of procedural discomfort. The Mayo Clinic cites a slight risk for seizures, hearing loss, or mania due to the treatment but these reactions have not been reported.

How TMS Works

The TMS electromagnet works by sending out short, repetitive magnetic pulses that are aimed at the brain’s limbic system. The limbic structures, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, are those that control an individual’s mood state. Neurons are activated by the electromagnetic pulses. This results in neuro-chemical changes including release of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which enhance mood.

Proponents of TMS say it is not like other alternative treatment methods using regular magnets. Regular magnets are much less powerful and are not pulsed through space and time. There are no rapid fluctuations to stimulate brain cells, and regular magnets do not have clinical trials to prove effectiveness.


Some questions about TMS will not be answered until long-term studies can be done. Yet, potential patients have wondered about the possibility of TMS triggering the development of brain tumors. Practitioners point to the fact that MRI tests, which also use electromagnetic fields, have not been correlated with the growth of tumors. They explain that a person having multiple courses of TMS treatments would have less exposure to magnetic fields than if they had a few MRI scans.

TMS is not expected to replace antidepressant medications. Some providers currently use this therapy in conjunction with medication. People helped by TMS have experienced the benefits for up to 6 months. Currently, researchers are treating other mental health disorders with TMS. There are reports it can be effective for symptoms of mania and schizophrenia. It will be interesting to follow the research and see how extensively this promising treatment will be used.

Related Articles


Are you currently seeing a therapist?: