Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Painful: Facts Every Patient Wants to Know

Keegan Warrington
October 1, 2021

Quick Overview of TMS Treatments

Is transcranial magnetic stimulation painful? This is one of the questions people ask when they hear about this treatment option. The short answer is no. But before diving into all that, it’s important to first understand what it’s all about.

TMS therapy is a revolutionary treatment option for patients who suffer from major depressive disorder or MDD. The process involves using electromagnets to strategically stimulate specific areas of the brain and combat depression symptoms.

Researchers hope to also utilize it in the treatment of related disorders like  OCD, PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, migraines, and chronic pain. Doctors often recommend TMS treatment when regular psychotherapy and antidepressant medications fail to yield tangible results.

How New is This Procedure?

Researchers first began looking into the benefits of TMS therapy in 1985. They learned that stimulating certain areas of the brain could affect one’s mood and even treat a variety of mental health illnesses. Over the years, the procedure went through more thorough research until its core benefits and possible side effects could be established.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug in 2008. Since then, TMS therapy has proven its effectiveness in providing relief for patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression.

There are several types of TMS treatments. The most common include the traditional procedure in which the machine sends a singular continuous electromagnetic signal to the specified areas of the brain; and the Repetitive TMS or rTMS, in which the machine sends several signals in rapid succession to the brain. There’s also the Deep TMS also known as dTMS, which sends signals as deep as four centimeters inside the brain.

When does transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy make sense?

When treating depression disorders, the first line of treatment is usually antidepressants and counseling. Depending on the severity, the doctor may also recommend psychotherapy sessions alongside the medications.

However, these treatment methods do not work for all patients. According to research, around 30% of people coping with depression don’t respond to medications and psychotherapy. At best, they might experience temporary relief, but the underlying condition remains present.

That’s where transcranial magnetic stimulation comes in. Depression is linked to changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area is responsible for mood regulation, energy levels, and appetites. Stimulating this part of the brain is therefore helpful in alleviating depression symptoms, while also helping to tackle any underlying conditions both physiologically and psychologically.

As such, patients who find that depression medication, counseling, and therapy are ineffective, can turn to TMS as a viable alternative or as a way to augment their current treatments.

Does TMS Therapy hurt?

Transcranial magnetic stimulation and pain are two terms that shouldn’t coexist in the same sentence. This is because TMS therapy is a gentle and non-invasive procedure. This means no surgery or puncturing of the skin of any sort occurs. The process is also designed to limit discomfort as much as possible. So to answer the question —  No, TMS therapy does not hurt. This is further corroborated by research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information or NCBI.

One of the main reasons some patients get nervous about TMS treatments is because it sounds a lot like electroconvulsive therapy  also known as ECT, which involves the use of small electric currents and requires the patient to be put under general anesthesia. TMS is nothing like ECT. It is safer, gentler, and has fewer side effects. Plus, patients don’t have to go under in order to receive TMS treatments.

In terms of pain levels, most patients who have gone through TMS therapy reported zero pain. However, some patients, especially those predisposed to migraines, reported mild levels of discomfort or tingling in their scalp after the procedure. In most cases, these migraines and headaches end up resolving themselves after a few hours. Patients can also take mild, over-the-counter pain relievers if necessary.

What does transcranial magnetic stimulation feel like?

The electromagnetic signals from the TMS machine are similar to those in magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans. If you’ve been in an MRI machine before, then you know the procedure is painless. You don’t feel the electromagnetic waves as it delivers the pulse to stimulate areas of your brain.

Overall, it’s a generally comfortable experience. In some cases, patients reported a light tapping sensation on their scalp. However, the feeling dissipated over time on its own.

If you feel any form of discomfort during your TMS treatment, be sure to notify the TMS physician. In the event that patients feel any form of discomfort during the procedure, the physician can make certain adjustments, such as lowering the motor threshold setting, modifying the pulse sequence, and changing the TMS device.

What are the side effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation?

Patients generally experience mild or no side effects from TMS treatments. Mild headaches are the most common side effect here. Others include tingling, sleepiness, lightheadedness, and a feeling of altered cognition.

Can TMS cause joint pain?

As it stands, TMS does not cause joint pain in itself. In fact, because TMS targets the activity of nerve cells in specific parts of the brain, it is potentially useful for improving chronic pain.

Can TMS make you worse?

TMS therapy has undergone several studies to ascertain its efficacy in treating depression. Recent research indicates it has a response rate of 30% to 64% after treatment.

That being said, it’s important to only use TMS therapy for patients who are correctly diagnosed with the kind of disorder that TMS is known to treat. It is not advisable to be used on patients with other kinds of mental health disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder because the treatment may worsen the symptoms.


Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is a generally painless procedure that targets nerve cells in specific parts of the brain to treat depression. If you or your loved one haven’t felt relief from antidepressants and psychotherapy, this treatment may be for you. Talk to your doctor about it.
You might also be a good candidate if you or your loved one is young and averse to the idea of starting on antidepressants at a tender age. You can also reach us here at Roots TMS if you have any questions about TMS therapy.

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Keegan Warrington