Questioning The True Benefits Of Magnets To Treat Depression

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Sometimes, when something seems too good to be true, it is.

The FDA recently approved the NeuroStar Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation system to treat some people with depression when other therapies have failed. (robertmcdonald1989/flickr)
The FDA recently approved the NeuroStar Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation system to treat some people with depression when other therapies have failed. (robertmcdonald1989/flickr)

Though the treatment, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, may help some subset of depressed patients and is now covered by Medicare when other therapies have failed, the expert medical news analysts over at explain why the USA Today report paints an overly rosy picture of the treatment's potential effectiveness.

Gary Schwitzer and colleague Harold DeMonaco write that "the story did not provide any semblance of balance in its reporting of the device." Here's a bit more from their far-reaching critique:

The story describes a single patient anecdote and does provide us with some information about the NIMH sponsored clinical trial: “Both Cochran and West cite high patient response rates. A clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health revealed a “significant effect of treatment” when patients received TMS treatment. It compared outcomes of patients who actually received the magnetic pulses against patients in a “sham” group, who sat down in the treatment chair for fake sessions.”

Here is what the lead author of the NIMH funded study said about the results performed in 190 patients with depression who failed standard drug therapy::

Thirteen (14 percent) of 92 patients who received the active treatment achieved remission, compared to 5 (about 5 percent) of 98 patients who received the simulation treatment.

“…the overall number of remitters and responders was less than one would like with a treatment that requires daily intervention for three weeks or more, even with a benign side effect profile.”

Hardly the results suggested by the story...

The story doesn’t provide any specifics about potential harms of the treatment, We are told, “…treatments are more effective than medications with far fewer side effects,” ”…but for the most part, it is safer in general than taking a medicine. You’ve got less seizure risk than taking a medicine. You’ve got less side effects than taking a medicine.” Exactly what are the risks and how often do they occur? Here is a listing of side effects from the NIMH website:

“Sometimes a person may have discomfort at the site on the head where the magnet is placed. The muscles of the scalp, jaw or face may contract or tingle during the procedure. Mild headache or brief lightheadedness may result. It is also possible that the procedure could cause a seizure, although documented incidences of this are uncommon. A recent large-scale study on the safety of rTMS found that most side effects, such as headaches or scalp discomfort, were mild or moderate, and no seizures occurred. Because the treatment is new, however, long-term side effects are unknown.”

This program aired on December 5, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.