Christine Curtis of Sterling, Va., says she is a "happy mom" again, crediting her recovery from debilitating depression to an expensive treatment that sends magnetic pulses into the brain.
"I can't put a price on it," said Curtis, 36, who said she feels better than she has in a decade after completing 30 days of the procedure, called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS.
An increasing number of psychiatrists and hospitals — as well as entrepreneurs opening rTMS centers around the country — are betting that there are millions of people like Curtis, discouraged by depression treatments that have proved unsuccessful and willing to pony up thousands of dollars for the possibility of relief. The treatment, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, is covered by Medicare in five states, but few private insurers pay for it routinely.
While rTMS has ardent supporters, its effectiveness is still debated, and there is little evidence showing how long the results last. The technique has been shown to work better than a placebo, but the proportion of patients who show complete relief ranges widely, from as few as 10 percent to as many as 57 percent, according to various studies.
The debate has huge implications, not just for many of the 14 million Americans who suffer from major depression every year but also for businesses eyeing a potentially lucrative market and insurers weighing whether to cover it.
About half of those 14 million Americans seek relief through psychotherapy and prescription drug treatment, according to an evaluation by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. But studies show that antidepressants provide complete cessation of symptoms only about a third of the time. Magnetic stimulation is aimed at patients with such "treatment-resistant depression."
Supporters say rTMS is worth the cost — between $6,000 and $12,000 for the four-to-six-week treatment — because it enables people such as Curtis to resume productive lives.