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  • John M. Thurston, MD

TMS vs. Medication: A Comparative Look

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and medication are two prevalent approaches to treating mental health issues, particularly depression. Both methods offer benefits and have limitations. This post will compare these treatments to help individuals understand which option might be best for them.

Mechanism of Action


TMS works by using magnetic fields to stimulate specific areas of the brain involved in mood regulation. The procedure is non-invasive and focuses on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area often underactive in depressed individuals. By stimulating this region, TMS can help reset brain activity, potentially reducing depressive symptoms.


Psychiatric medications, including antidepressants, typically increase the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which are linked to mood and emotion. Each class of medication works differently and can be tailored to the patient's specific symptoms.



TMS has been shown to be effective for patients who do not respond to traditional medications. Clinical studies suggest that about 50-60% of people who undergo TMS experience a clinically significant response, and about one-third may achieve full remission of their depression symptoms.


Medication can be effective for a broad range of psychiatric conditions, not just depression. The effectiveness can vary widely, especially in light of the re-evaluation of the STAR-D Trial which may indicate that initial data on effectiveness may have been over-inflated.  Medications are often combined or switched to enhance effectiveness.

Side Effects


TMS is generally well-tolerated. The most common side effects are temporary and include scalp discomfort at the site of stimulation, headache, and lightheadedness. There is a very low risk of seizures, but it is exceedingly rare when TMS is performed according to established safety guidelines.


Medication can cause a range of side effects, which vary depending on the type of drug. Common side effects include nausea, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, insomnia, dry mouth, and blurred vision. Some patients may experience long-term side effects, and there can be withdrawal symptoms if the medication is stopped abruptly.

Time Frame for Results


One of the advantages of TMS is the speed at which it can work. Some patients may see improvements in their symptoms within two weeks of starting treatment, although the full course usually takes 4-6 weeks.


Antidepressants typically take about 4-6 weeks to start showing effects, with maximum benefits often taking several months to be realized. This delayed onset can be a drawback for those seeking quicker relief from symptoms.

Accessibility and Cost


TMS is generally more expensive upfront and may not be covered by all insurance plans. It requires daily sessions over several weeks at a clinic, which can be a logistical challenge for some patients.


Medications are widely available and are typically covered by insurance plans, making them a more accessible option for many people. They can be taken at home, which is convenient for most people.


Choosing between TMS and medication depends on individual needs, medical history, and treatment response. For those who have not found relief through medications, TMS offers a promising alternative with few side effects and rapid results. Conversely, medication remains a fundamental, accessible treatment modality for a wide range of psychiatric conditions and offers the convenience of home use.

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