Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Bipolar Disorder: Does It Help?

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Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, is an episodic illness that affects between 1.0% to 1.8% of the population. Individuals with this mental health condition have extreme mood swings characterized by emotional highs (mania) and lows (depression). 

These mood swings are difficult to manage and the symptoms can include but are not limited to: 

  • Mania or hypomania
  • Euphoria
  • Uncharacteristic energy
  • Talkativeness
  • Racing thoughts
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Impaired judgment
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Depression, including extreme depression
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt

Additionally, many of those with bipolar disorder experience additional mental health conditions that require pharmaceutical treatment. 

Some co-occurring conditions include anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), alcohol or drug use, heart disease, thyroid issues, headaches, and obesity. For these reasons, individuals with bipolar disorder often seek effective treatment options. In this post, we will look at Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Bipolar Disorder and its effectiveness.

Standard Treatments for Bipolar Disorder

Traditionally, this condition is treated with pharmacotherapy and psychological counseling. These treatments often aim to stabilize the mood and lessen the dramatic changes between manic and depressive symptoms. 

Pharmaceutical treatment for bipolar often includes a combination of the following medications:

  • Mood stabilizers, such as lithium
  • Antipsychotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Benzodiazepines

These medications are often ineffective, or patients dislike the side effects. Some report unwanted changes in personality and mental numbness. 

One report also found that medications used for bipolar disorder are only about 50% effective in reducing symptoms. Depending upon the individual, these episodes of mood swings may occur rarely or many times throughout the year. 

There are also varying severity of this condition, characterized as Bipolar I, Bipolar II Disorder, Cyclothymic Disorder, and an undiagnosed classification. 

Bipolar I is the most common type, characterized by severe depressive and manic episodes that last weeks or months. Bipolar II is similar to Bipolar I with less intensity of symptoms. 

Cyclothymic disorder is even milder than Bipolar I or Bipolar II. The undiagnosed or mixed diagnoses often exhibit features of Bipolar I, Bipolar II, or cyclothymic disorders. 

Importantly, pharmacotherapy used to treat bipolar disorder can result in adverse side effects, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Hair loss
  • Weight gain
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Interactions with other medications

When many side effects are experienced, patients often fail to comply with their medication regimen. Discontinuing medication or failing to adhere to the recommended dosages will render pharmacotherapies ineffective. 

The severe limitations of current bipolar disorder treatments and the side effects of medications have led many to consider alternative treatments for this condition.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Bipolar Disorder

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive therapeutic option. It involves applying magnetic pulses on the brain’s hyperactive or hypoactive cortical areas. The goal of this treatment is to modulate brain networks. 

When administering TMS therapy, a clinician will place an electromagnetic coil on a specified region of the patient’s scalp. Magnetic pulses from the coil travel to the targeted cortical area, activating neurons and balancing chemicals in the brain. 

Unlike electroconvulsive therapy, patients generally remain awake during the treatment and are functional directly after a TMS session. 

There are many studies documenting the efficacy of TMS for depression, particularly when other treatments fail. It is an FDA-approved treatment that can improve mood and stabilize emotions, often without the side effects of medications currently used to treat bipolar disorder. 

TMS corrects abnormalities in the brain responsible for cognitive processes and emotional regulation. It addresses underlying miscommunication and functioning problems in some areas of the brain. TMS can stimulate these regions to help them communicate properly while optimizing their functionality. 

TMS Treatment can be incredibly effective at eliminating or reducing symptoms associated with bipolar disorder. Theta Burst TMS has over a 70% remission rate, meaning that approximately three-quarters of patients undergoing therapy see a complete loss of symptoms. 

In addition to being an effective treatment, TMS has other benefits, such as:

  • Targeting symptoms to help an individual stay stable enough for psychotherapy and counseling. 
  • TMS allows patients to receive treatment without impacting their daily life. Patients can undergo a session and resume normal activities immediately afterward. 

It is non-invasive and requires no sedation. It will not leave patients feeling drowsy or cognitively impaired. Most people can drive to and from their appointment. 

  • It has a considerably higher success rate than other standard treatments for bipolar depression. 
  • The vast majority of patients experience no side effects. Those often report only mild symptoms, such as muscle contractions or tingling in their jaw, mild headaches, or light-headedness.
  • Despite being a relatively new treatment for bipolar disorder, most major health insurers, including Cigna, United Healthcare, and Aetna, among others, cover transcranial magnetic stimulation. 

TMS offers a non-invasive alternative when standard treatment options are ineffective or when the patient wants to avoid medication side effects. Many treatment centers that provide TMS can craft a personalized treatment approach. 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation for bipolar disorder incorporates changes in energy level, sleep, motivation, and mood on a daily basis. The treatment protocol may be adjusted based on how the individual responds. 

There is no doubt that individuals living with bipolar disorder face many challenges. This disorder can be highly distressing and impact nearly all aspects of one’s life. 

Traditional treatment options are often ineffective or come with severe side effects. TMS offers a safe and effective alternative to manage or ameliorate symptoms associated with bipolar disorder.

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