The human brain is arguably the most important organ in the human body, and that is why it is so crucial to make sure it stays healthy. Vagus Nerve Stimulation is a profound therapeutic method that is used to treat some mental health disorders and improve the quality of life for many people.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The Vagus Nerve is a part of the 12 cranial nerves located in the autonomic nervous system responsible for controlling involuntary body functions. The Vagus Nerve is the tenth nerve and is responsible for delivering a wide range of signals from the digestive system and organs to the brain (and vice versa). The nerve originates in the brain, goes down the neck and the thorax to the abdomen area.
Fun Fact: The Vagus Nerve has also been nicknamed the “Wanderer Nerve’ due to the long path it takes through the human body!
This nerve is associated with motor functions in the diaphragm, voice box, heart, and stomach. The Vagus Nerve is also connected to sensory functions in the tongue and ears. Furthermore, the vagus Nerve connects to sensory and motor functions in the esophagus and sinuses.
What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
The Vagus Nerve serves as an excellent vessel to transfer energy from the brain to other body parts. This is precisely what happens in Vagus Nerve Stimulation.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is a therapeutic method that sends mild, regular pulses of electrical energy to the brain through the Vagus Nerve. This transfer is done by using a device that is similar to a pacemaker. This procedure does not physically involve the brain, and patients typically do not feel the pulses.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation can be an excellent treatment option for individuals who have Epilepsy or treatment-resistant Depression. However, VNS treatment is not for everyone. This treatment method may not be an appropriate option for individuals with the following health conditions:
- If they are receiving another form of brain stimulation.
- Heart arrhythmias or another heart abnormality
- Lung Disorders
- Vasovagal Syncope
- Dysautonomias (limited functioning of the autonomic nervous system)
Implanting the Vagus Nerve Stimulation Device requires a 45-90 minute outpatient procedure that a neurosurgeon performs. The patient is commonly put under general anesthesia for the surgery. As with any other surgery, there is a small risk of infection involved. Other risks of the procedure include nerve restriction, inflammation at the incision site, or damage to nerves close by.
A surgeon starts by making two tiny incisions. The first incision is on the upper left side of the chest. This is where the surgeon implants the pulse generator. After that, the surgeon will make an incision horizontally on the left side of the lower neck. Thin, flexible wires that connect the pulse generator to the vagus nerve will go inside this second incision.
After that, the stimulator typically gets activated around 2-4 weeks after the surgery. However, it may be activated at the time of the procedure in some cases. The neurosurgeon controls the stimulator using a small handheld computer, programming wand, and programming software. The neurosurgeon can program the duration and strength of the electrical impulses using this method. An implanted Vagus Nerve Stimulation Device runs constantly and can be programmed to shut off during specific time periods.
Patients are given a handheld magnet that also controls their Vagus Nerve stimulation at home. Friends, family members, and caretakers can also use this device to program the patient’s stimulator.
Various Vagus Nerve stimulation side effects will most likely improve over time:
- Increased coughing
- Changes in voice
- Throat pain
- Muscle twitching
- Vomiting or Nausea
- Shortness of Breath
- Throat tickling
VNS in Treating Epilepsy
Epilepsy is a central nervous system disorder where the brain’s activity can become excessive and abnormal. Epilepsy can cause a lot of discomfort and misery for those who suffer from it. Common symptoms of Epilepsy include unusual behavior, loss of awareness, and seizures.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation can be a useful alternative for individuals who have tried more than two anti-epileptics drugs, but the drugs were unable to control their seizures. Also, VNS is used in combination with anti-epileptic drugs instead of replacing them. It has been effectively shown to reduce seizures but does not eliminate them. Furthermore, VNS can take around two years to reduce the patient’s seizures successfully. If the VNS therapy seems to be effective for the patient, the doctor may decrease doses of AEDs for the patient over time.
VNS aims to decrease the length, amount, and severity of seizures. The therapy may also reduce recovery time after a seizure. It is important to remember that not everyone responds the same to VNS. Some report a significant decrease in seizures, while others do not report any decrease at all. Certain individuals experience warnings such as auras before the onset of a seizure. These patients can activate the stimulator using their magnet when they see a warning to help reduce or stop their seizures.
Along with a reduction in seizures, VNS has been great for the mental health of patients with Epilepsy as well. Vagus Nerve Stimulation can also be used with yoga to enhance clarity further and alleviate stress. Patients treated with this therapy report the following Vagus Nerve stimulation benefits as a result of their treatment:
- Improvement in mood.
- Increase in their sense of well-being
- Improvement in their cognitive abilities, memory, and alertness
VNS is Treating Treatment-Resistant Depression
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially approved Vagus Nerve stimulation therapy as a way to treat seizures. However, when patients consistently reported an improvement in mood, VNS was also considered as a treatment for depression. Individuals that suffer from depression have an imbalance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. VNS uses electricity to affect the creation of neurotransmitters which can reduce symptoms of depression (similarly to electroconvulsive therapy).
VNS does not work right away for patients who are looking for relief from Depression. You might not notice any reduction in your symptoms for the first two or three months. However, reports have shown that 20-30% of participants in a research study showed an improvement in their depression symptoms after one year of VNS. Therefore, VNS is a successful way to treat depression in individuals who do not respond to other forms of treatment.
WARNING: VNS should not be implemented for patients with the following conditions:
- Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Truly, Vagus Nerve Stimulation is a remarkable therapeutic method for treating Epilepsy and Treatment-Resistant Depression. No one should suffer from these health conditions and feel like there is no answer to their problems.
If left untreated, mental health conditions can be detrimental to your quality of life, if not fatal. If you or a loved one is suffering from seizures, treatment-resistant depression, or any other mental health/brain disorder, locate a mental health treatment facility near you.