Insulin shock therapy

Insulin shock therapy
Insulin shock therapy

Insulin shock therapy administered in Lapinlahti Hospital, Helsinki in the 1950s
ICD-9-CM 94.24
MeSH D003295

Insulin shock therapy or insulin coma therapy (ICT) was a form of psychiatric treatment in which patients were repeatedly injected with large doses of insulin in order to produce daily comas over several weeks.[1] It was introduced in 1933 by Polish-Austrian-American psychiatrist Manfred Sakel and used extensively in the 1940s and 1950s, mainly for schizophrenia, before falling out of favour and being replaced by neuroleptic drugs.[2]

Insulin coma therapy and the convulsive therapies (electro and cardiazol/metrazol) were collectively known as shock therapy.[3] Although insulin coma therapy had disappeared in the USA by the 1970s, it was still being used at that time in some countries, such as China and the Soviet Union.[4]



In 1927 Sakel, who had recently qualified as a doctor in Vienna and was working in a psychiatric clinic in Berlin, began to use low (sub-coma) doses of insulin to treat drug addicts and psychopaths.[5] Having returned to Vienna, he treated schizophrenic patients with larger doses of insulin in order to produce coma and sometimes convulsions.[5] Sakel made public his results in 1933 and his methods were soon taken up by other psychiatrists.[5]

Joseph Wortis, after seeing Sakel practice it in 1935, introduced it to the USA. British psychiatrists from the Board of Control visited Vienna in 1935 and 1936, and by 1938 thirty-one hospitals in England and Wales had insulin treatment units.[2] In 1936 Sakel moved to New York and promoted the use of insulin coma treatment in American psychiatric hospitals.[5] By the late 1940s the majority of psychiatric hospitals in the USA were using insulin coma treatment.[6]


Insulin coma therapy was a labour-intensive treatment that required trained staff and a special unit.[2] Patients, who were almost invariably diagnosed with schizophrenia, were selected on the basis of having a good prognosis and the physical strength to withstand an arduous treatment.[7] There were no standard guidelines for treatment; different hospitals and psychiatrists developed their own protocols.[7] Typically, injections were administered six days a week for about two months.[1]

The daily insulin dose was gradually increased to 100–150 units until comas were produced, at which point the dose would be levelled out.[1] Occasionally doses of up to 450 units were used.[8] After about 50 or 60 comas, or earlier if the psychiatrist thought that maximum benefit had been achieved, the dose of insulin was rapidly reduced before treatment was stopped.[7][9] Courses of up to 2 years have been documented.[9]

After the insulin injection patients would experience various symptoms of decreased blood glucose: flushing, pallor, perspiration, salivation, drowsiness or restlessness.[9] Sopor and coma—if the dose was high enough—would follow.[9] Each coma would last for up to an hour and be terminated by intravenous glucose.[1] Seizures sometimes occurred before or during the coma.[10] Many would be tossing, rolling, moaning, twitching, spasming or thrashing around.[7]

Some psychiatrists regarded seizures as therapeutic and patients were sometimes also given electroconvulsive therapy or cardiazol/metrazol convulsive therapy during the coma, or on the day of the week when they didn’t have insulin treatment.[9][10] When they were not in a coma, insulin coma patients were kept together in a group and given special treatment and attention; one handbook for psychiatric nurses, written by British psychiatrist Eric Cunningham Dax, instructs nurses to take their insulin patients out walking and occupy them with games and competitions, flower-picking and map-reading, etc.[11] Patients required continuous supervision as there was a danger of hypoglycaemic aftershocks after the coma.[2]

In "modified insulin therapy", used in the treatment of neurosis, patients were given lower (sub-coma) doses of insulin.[9]


Although a few psychiatrists (including Sakel) claimed success rates for insulin coma therapy of over 80 percent in the treatment of schizophrenia, and a few argued that it merely sped up remission in those patients who would undergo remission anyway, the consensus at the time was somewhere in between - claiming a success rate of about 50 percent in patients who had been ill for less than a year (about double the spontaneous remission rate) with no influence on relapse.[5][12]

Sakel suggested the therapy worked by "causing an intensification of the tonus of the parasympathetic end of the autonomic nervous system, by blockading the nerve cell, and by strengthening the anabolic force which induces the restoration of the normal function of the nerve cell and the recovery of the patient."[5] The shock therapies in general had developed on the erroneous premise that epilepsy and schizophrenia rarely occurred in the same patient. Another theory was that patients were somehow "jolted" out of their mental illness.[13]

The hypoglycemia (pathologically low glucose levels) that resulted from ICT made patients extremely restless, sweaty, and liable to further convulsions and "after-shocks". In addition, patients invariably emerged from the long course of treatment "grossly obese".[7] The most severe risks of insulin coma therapy were death and brain damage, resulting from irreversible or prolonged coma respectively.[1][8] A study at the time actually claimed that many of the cases of brain damage were actually therapeutic improvement because they showed "loss of tension and hostility".[14] Mortality (death) risk estimates varied from about one percent[2] to 4.9 percent.[15]


Insulin coma therapy was used in most hospitals in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 1940s and 1950s, but the numbers of patients were restricted by the requirement for intensive medical and nursing supervision and the length of time it took to complete a course of treatment. For example at one typical large British psychiatric hospital, Severalls Hospital in Essex, insulin coma treatment was given to 39 patients in 1956. The same year 18 patients received modified insulin treatment, whilst 432 patients were given electroconvulsive treatment.[16]

In 1953 British psychiatrist Harold Bourne published a paper entitled "The insulin myth" in the Lancet, in which he argued that there was no sound basis for believing that insulin coma therapy counteracted the schizophrenic process in a specific way. If treatment worked, he said, it was because patients were chosen for their good prognosis and were given special treatment: "insulin patients tend to be an elite group sharing common privileges and perils".[17]

In 1957, when insulin coma treatment use was already declining, the Lancet published the results of a randomized, controlled trial where patients were either given insulin coma treatment or identical treatment but with unconsciousness produced by barbiturates. There was no difference in outcome between the groups and the authors concluded that, whatever the benefits of the coma regime, insulin was not the specific therapeutic agent.[18]

Recent writing

Recent articles about insulin coma treatment have attempted to explain why it was given such uncritical acceptance. In the United States Deborah Doroshow writes that insulin coma therapy secured its foothold in psychiatry not because of scientific evidence or knowledge of any mechanism of therapeutic action, but due to the impressions it made on the minds of the medical practitioners within the local world in which it was administered and the dramatic recoveries they saw in some patients. Today, she writes, those who were involved are often ashamed, recalling it as unscientific and inhumane. Administering insulin coma therapy made psychiatry seem a more legitimately medical field. Harold Bourne, who questioned the treatment at the time, is quoted: "It meant that psychiatrists had something to do. It made them feel like real doctors instead of just institutional attendants".[7]

One retired psychiatrist who was interviewed by Doroshow "described being won over because his patients were so sick and alternative treatments did not exist".[7] Doroshow argues that "psychiatrists used complications to exert their practical and intellectual expertise in a hospital setting" and that collective risk-taking established "especially tight bonds among unit staff members".[7] She finds it ironic that psychiatrists "who were willing to take large therapeutic risks were extremely careful in their handling of adverse effects". Psychiatrists interviewed by Doroshow recalled how insulin coma patients were provided with various routines and recreational and group-therapeutic activities, to a much greater extent than most psychiatric patients. Insulin coma specialists often chose patients whose problems were the most recent and who had the best prognosis; in one case discussed by Doroshow a patient had already started to show improvement before insulin coma treatment, and after the treatment denied that it had helped, but the psychiatrists nevertheless argued that it had.[7]

In the United Kingdom psychiatrist Kingsley Jones sees the support of the Board of Control as important in persuading psychiatrists to use insulin coma therapy. The treatment then acquired the privileged status of a standard procedure, protected by professional organizational interests. He also notes that it has been suggested that the Mental Treatment Act 1930 encouraged psychiatrists to experiment with physical treatments.[2]

British lawyer Phil Fennell notes that patients "must have been terrified" by the insulin shock procedures and the effects of the massive overdoses of insulin, and were often rendered more compliant and easier to manage after a course.[13]

Leonard Roy Frank, an American survivor of 50 forced insulin coma treatments combined with ECT has described it as "the most devastating, painful and humiliating experience of my life", a "flat-out atrocity" glossed over by psychiatric euphemism, and a violation of basic human rights.[19]

Pop culture

In Dr. Kildare's Strange Case (1940), Dr. Kildare uses the insulin treatment to treat a patient ("an insane man").

Catherine Fawley is treated with insulin in London after becoming deranged in Iris Murdoch's 1958 novel The Bell.

Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath's 1967 novel The Bell Jar receives insulin shock therapy while hospitalized.

Insulin shock therapy was featured and dramatized in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr.

Dr. House in the US TV series House, initiated insulin shock therapy on himself in a season 5 episode (Under My Skin) in an attempt to eliminate hallucinations caused by Vicodin abuse.

The American singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt was given insulin shock therapy, as a result of which he lost most of his memories of his childhood.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Neustatter WL (1948) Modern psychiatry in practice. London: 224.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Jones, K (2000). "Insulin coma therapy in schizophrenia". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 93 (3): 147–149. PMC 1297956. PMID 10741319. 
  3. ^ Jones, GL (1948) Psychiatric shock therapy: current uses and practices. Williamsburg: p1.
  4. ^ Kalinowsky, LB (1980). "The discovery of somatic treatments in psychiatry". Comprehensive Psychiatry 21 (6): 428–435. doi:10.1016/0010-440X(80)90044-9. PMID 7000433. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f MJ Sakel (1956) The classical Sakel shock treatment: a reappraisal. In F. Marti-Ibanez et al. (eds.) The great physiodynamic therapies in psychiatry: an historical reappraisal. New York: 13-75.
  6. ^ GL Jones (1948) Psychiatric shock therapy: current uses and practices. Williamsburg: p17.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Doroshow, DB (2007). "Performing a cure for schizophrenia: insulin coma therapy on the wards". Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 62 (2): 213–43. doi:10.1093/jhmas/jrl044. PMID 17105748. 
  8. ^ a b Maclay, WS (1953). "Death due to treatment". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 46 (1): 13–20. PMC 1918466. PMID 13027286. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f C Allen (1949) Modern discoveries in medical psychology. London: 219-220.
  10. ^ a b WW Sargant and E Slater (1954) An introduction to the physical methods of treatment in psychiatry, 3rd edition. Edinburgh.
  11. ^ EC Dax (1947) Modern mental treatment : a handbook for nurses. London: 13-14.
  12. ^ Mayer-Gross W (1950). "Insulin coma therapy of schizophrenia: some critical remarks on Dr Sakel's report". Journal of Mental Science 96: 132–135. 
  13. ^ a b Phil Fennell (1996) Treatment Without Consent: Law, Psychiatry and the Treatment of Mentally Disordered People Since 1845 Routledge, 1996 ISBN 0415077877
  14. ^ Observations on organic brain damage and clinical improvement following protracted insulin coma (1955)
  15. ^ Ebaugh, FG (1943). "A review of the drastic shock therapies in the treatment of the psychoses". Annals of Internal Medicine 18 (3): 279–296. 
  16. ^ D Gittens (1998) Narratives of Severalls Hospital, 1913-1977. Oxford: 197-199.
  17. ^ Bourne, H. (1953). "The insulin myth. Lancet". Ii 265 (6798): 964–8. PMID 13110026. 
  18. ^ Ackner, B; Harris, A; Oldham, AJ (1957). "Insulin treatment of schizophrenia; a controlled study.". Lancet 272 (6969): 607–11. PMID 13407078. 
  19. ^ Frank, LR (2002). "Psychiatry's Unholy Trinity--Fraud, Fear and Force: a personal account". The Freeman - Ideas on Liberty 52: 11. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • insulin shock therapy — n the treatment of mental disorder (as schizophrenia) by insulin in doses sufficient to produce deep coma called also insulin coma therapy compare INSULIN SHOCK …   Medical dictionary

  • insulin shock therapy — noun the administration of sufficient insulin to induce convulsions and coma • Syn: ↑insulin shock, ↑insulin shock treatment • Hypernyms: ↑shock therapy, ↑shock treatment * * * noun : the treatment of mental disorder …   Useful english dictionary

  • insulin shock therapy — noun Shock therapy effected by means of injecting insulin …   Wiktionary

  • insulin coma therapy — n INSULIN SHOCK THERAPY …   Medical dictionary

  • Insulin Coma Therapy —    (ICT)    (1927 and after)    After the discovery of insulin in 1922, efforts to employ it in psychiatry at subcoma levels began almost immediately. Manfred Sakel (pronounced SOK el) (1900–1957) won a place in the history of psychiatry because… …   Historical dictionary of Psychiatry

  • insulin-coma therapy — /in seuh lin koh meuh, ins yeuh /, Psychiatry. a former treatment for mental illness, esp. schizophrenia, employing insulin induced hypoglycemia as a method for producing convulsive seizures. Also called insulin shock therapy /in seuh lin shok ,… …   Universalium

  • insulin-coma therapy — /in seuh lin koh meuh, ins yeuh /, Psychiatry. a former treatment for mental illness, esp. schizophrenia, employing insulin induced hypoglycemia as a method for producing convulsive seizures. Also called insulin shock therapy /in seuh lin shok ,… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Shock therapy — or shock treatment may refer to: A form of aversion therapy in which an electric shock is used as a negative stimulus Electroconvulsive therapy, or electroshock, a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in anaesthetized… …   Wikipedia

  • shock therapy — shock′ ther apy n. pst any of various therapies, as insulin shock therapy or electroconvulsive therapy, that induce convulsions or unconsciousness and are used for symptomatic relief in certain mental disorders. Also called shock′ treat ment •… …   From formal English to slang

  • shock therapy — (not in technical use) any of various therapies, as insulin shock therapy or electroconvulsive therapy, that induce convulsions or unconsciousness, used for symptomatic relief in certain mental disorders. Also called shock treatment. [1935 40] *… …   Universalium

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