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Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation: A different treatment for managing depression

Stephanie Bergman’s first experiences with depression came from others in her family who were affected by the condition. She says it wasn’t a complete surprise when, in her early twenties, she was formally diagnosed herself. “There can be a genetic component to it. But I think I was the first and only one who was ready to accept it, and also accept some help for it,” she says.

In the 25 years since her diagnosis, Stephanie says medication has been a mainstay in her treatment plan. “For a long time, I thought I would be able to handle it on my own just with the medications, and for the most part I was successful.” But she says there were times she struggled deeply and needed more.

That led her to a gamut of other treatment approaches over the years. “I was ready to try anything to be able to support myself and be a better mom, daughter and wife. Then I learned about rTMS.”

rTMS – or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation – is approved by Health Canada for treatment-resistant depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Statistics show that of the five per cent of Canadians who are diagnosed with depression every year, about one third will not get better with medication alone.

“rTMS involves the application of magnetic pulses to stimulate the brain through the skull in a non-invasive way,” says Dr. Peter Giacobbe, psychiatrist and clinical lead at Sunnybrook’s Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation. “We know in depression that some parts of the brain are underactive and others are overactive. By administering the energy to a discreet part of the brain, we’re able to rebalance the connectivity. Every patient receives a dose that is appropriate for them.”

Dr. Giacobbe says rTMS has been available at Sunnybrook since 2019, and is one of the treatment options psychiatrists consider for patients. “Side effects can include some pain or headache, but are minimal. About 80 per cent of patients experience some level of improvement,” he says. Treatments typically take between three to twenty minutes, and are done daily over the course of several weeks. Patients are able to work and drive immediately following each session.

Funding for rTMS at Sunnybrook comes through research grants as well as the Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation. Dr. Giacobbe notes that Sunnybrook is one of the largest centres in Canada for rTMS and is unique in that it offers shorter “booster” treatments when patients are in need.

“I truly wasn’t able to function on medications alone,” says Stephanie, who adds that rTMS has rebalanced her. “I do experience some pain during the treatment, but the treatment only takes two minutes. Afterwards, there are absolutely no side effects. My family often tells me that I’m back to myself. Things are so much better.”

Stephanie says her depression gets worse during the winter months, so she uses light therapy and receives some rTMS boosters at Sunnybrook to get her through. She hopes that sharing her experiences will help others learn about this hopeful treatment option. “You have to learn to cope because depression doesn’t go away.”

Learn more about rTMS at Sunnybrook.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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