Electroconvulsive therapy--the practice of stimulating a mental patient with electricity until he or she has a seizure--has never been totally free of controversy. The public, and plenty of people in the medical community, have long regarded it with a mixture of skepticism and alarm, viewing it as a bit of a barbaric holdover from the dark ages of mental health. But according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, ECT is potentially on its way to being legitimized. An FDA panel is weighing whether or not to reclassify ECT devices as medium-risk, rather than high-risk, equipment, and a number of people have come forward to defend the treatment.
The LA Times article points out that some 100,000 people undergo ECT every year, and that "modern versions of the treatment offer the last, best hope of patients suffering from extreme depression and several other intractable psychiatric disorders." The article also acknowledges ECT's frightening reputation, with its attendant "stereotypical images of straining, violently convulsed patients," but notes that the form of ECT practiced today is almost a sedate affair, where, in the words of one journalist, "unless you were watching the EKG or the EEG, you wouldn't know that the person's actually gotten the shock."
If ECT is indeed becoming more widely accepted in the medeical mainstream, it wouldn't be the first practice to be let in from the cold. The use of live animals like maggots and leeches--to clear dead tissue and drain blood--was also once thought of as crude, 19th-century pseudoscience. But in 2004, the FDA embraced maggots and leeches, classifying them as official medical devices. Now leeches, for example, are used to help restore circulation to tissues after trauma or surgery to keep them from dying.
The opiate laudanum was a voguish cure-all in the time of Abraham Lincoln, but it lost a lot of cachet during the 20th century. Tylenol and antibiotics came in as better substitutes for simply getting a patient high. Laudanum is still prescribed today, though--usually under a different name--as a treatment for diarrhea and pain. Opiates in general are accepted options for the alleviation of extreme pain, more generally. Of course, there are also the perpetual hopeful rumors that LSD, used in numerous clinical and therapeutic experiments in the 1950s and '60s, might one day become an object in medical practicioners' toolkits once again.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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