Finding effective treatment that works for various chronic conditions is rare and heavily sought after. But this is exactly what experts hope to accomplish with vagus nerve stimulation. Relatively new, there is still a lot to learn about this form of treatment, including exactly what it does and who it can help.
If you are struggling with chronic pain or other serious medical conditions, vagus nerve stimulation might be an option for you. Read on to learn more about the different forms of this treatment, the risks, and the potential benefits.
What Does the Vagus Nerve Do?
The vagus nerve serves an essential role in the functionality of the human body. The vagus nerve is classified as one of the 12 cranial nerves, which control everything from the senses to movements throughout the body. This specific nerve can be found running from the brain all the way through to the colon.
The vagus nerve is in charge of regulating the autonomic nervous system. This means being responsible for things such as:
- Heart functions
- Reflexes like sneezing, swallowing, and gagging
In short, the vagus nerve is responsible for many unconscious actions. When the nerve is damaged or dysfunctional in any way, it can not only make life a lot more challenging, but it can also become dangerous. Vagus nerve damage can contribute to gastrointestinal distress (nausea or vomiting), problems regulating heart rate, low blood pressure, and mental health issues.
To combat this, experts have introduced vagus nerve stimulation therapy. Let’s dive deeper into what exactly this therapy does as well as what it can treat.
What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
Vagus nerve stimulation is a type of therapy that works to activate this nerve. When the nerve is stimulated, it can once again address all of the areas that it is responsible for. The activation comes in the form of mild electrical pulses that the patient usually doesn’t even feel.
There are two different forms of VNS: surgical and non-surgical. The surgical route to VNS involves having a small device implanted under the skin. This device is attached to a lead, which is placed near either the right or the left vagus nerve, depending on the medical problem in question.
Recently, non-surgical VNS has been possible through the use of external devices. This approach to VNS can be successful in treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart failure, and more.
Who Can Benefit from VNS?
As shown above, VNS can be useful for a variety of conditions, including:
- Epilepsy—Currently, VNS is most known for its effectiveness in helping people with epilepsy. This has been an FDA approved epilepsy treatment since the late 90s. Vagus nerve stimulation therapy is particularly useful for people with epilepsy who do not respond to seizure medications. VNS is shown to reduce the severity and frequency of seizure activity in people with epilepsy.
- Mental health—Interestingly, the vagus nerve is connected to mental wellness. Experts have started looking into VNS as treatment for certain mental health conditions, such as depression and bipolar disorder. The FDA approved VNS for bipolar disorder in the early 2000s, but researchers believe that it can treat much more than this. The goal is to help the body learn to regulate in times of distress, which is something that the vagus nerve contributes to. This approach to mental health treatment is most effective when paired with other techniques, such as joining support groups or participating in cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Gastroparesis—This is a condition that impacts the digestive tract. Common symptoms of this condition include weight fluctuation, nausea, vomiting, and an inability to empty the bowel completely. Medical professionals don’t know exactly what causes gastroparesis, but they do believe that the vagus nerve has something to do with it. Right now, looking at the effectiveness of VNS for gastroparesis is in the early stages, but studies already show that this treatment method can relieve some of the symptoms.
- Cluster headaches—More recently, the non-surgical option for VNS is being looked at as a treatment for cluster headaches. These headaches, along with other types, can be debilitating for the people who get them and, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of treatment options that work to alleviate the pain. That said, external electrical stimulation might offer some relief based on current studies.
- Rheumatoid arthritis—One study indicates that VNS could be helpful in lowering levels of inflammation and other symptoms for people who have RA. This could result in less pain and less health deterioration overall. However, not much is known yet about the true effectiveness of vagus nerve stimulation for conditions like RA. But this gives a sliver of hope to people who live with chronic pain that there might be new treatment options to improve their overall quality of life.
There are a lot of other conditions on top of the ones listed above in which researchers believe that VNS can be an effective form of treatment. However, more research and clinical trials are needed to really understand the extent of what VNS can do.
What Does the Future Look Like for VNS?
In truth, it’s impossible to know exactly how far VNS will go in treating medical conditions. Studies suggest that there are many more opportunities for VNS to be used as a treatment option. In the future, vagus nerve stimulation could provide more pain relief for people with chronic pain and might treat symptoms of other serious disorders.
If you feel that you might benefit from VNS, be sure to speak to your doctor or other trusted health professional. They can walk you through your options and guide you on the next steps. You might also find comfort in speaking to other people who have been through this type of treatment. Learn more about this treatment option and more for different health conditions through the Pain Resource Community. You might be surprised to learn about all of the ways that VNS can help—especially when you’ve exhausted many other options just trying to find relief from unwanted symptoms.
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