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12-month warranty
Same day dispatch
Professionally endorsed

Vagus Nerve Stimulation: How Does It Work?

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The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve, playing a crucial role in the functioning of many vital organs. A problem with this nerve could indicate several health issues. Thus, medical treatments, such as vagus nerve stimulation, are essential in restoring health and well-being. This treatment uses mild electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve to send signals to the brain. It has shown efficacy in treating depression, epilepsy, and cardiovascular diseases.

The vagal nerve is a key component of the autonomic nervous system responsible for sensory and motor functions. It extends from the brainstem to various organs, including the heart, lungs, and digestive system. One of the key approaches to stimulating this nerve is through electrotherapy. In this guide, we will explore the mechanisms behind the stimulation of the vagal nerve and explore its applications in treating various conditions.

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What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?

Vagus nerve stimulation is a medical technique for treating epilepsy, depression, and heart conditions. It involves the implantation of a device called a VNS  or pulse generator. The device is placed under the skin in the upper chest area with a lead wire connecting to the vagus nerve. When the device delivers the pulses, it sends electrical signals to the brain.

During the stimulation, the device sends electrical pulses at regular intervals. The intensity and frequency can be adjusted based on individual needs and responses. These pulses then travel along the nerve fibres to reach different areas of the brain, where they can modulate neural activity. This modulation can have various effects on the body, depending on the target condition.

The vagal stimulation has been primarily approved for the treatment of epilepsy that is resistant to antiepileptic medications. It is also valuable as an adjunctive therapy for depressive illnesses. Moreover, patients receive a handheld magnet to control the delivery of the electrical impulses if they need additional stimulation.

Use Cases

  • Epilepsy management: Reduce the frequency and severity of seizures in patients with epilepsy.
  • Depression treatment: Modulate abnormal brain activity and regulate mood-related neurotransmitters.
  • Migraine relief: Adjunctive treatment for chronic migraines, helping to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.
  • Anxiety reduction: Alleviate symptoms of anxiety disorders by modulating the autonomic nervous system and reducing stress responses.
  • Inflammatory disorders: Regulate inflammatory responses to rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
  • Heart health: Regulate heart rate and improve cardiac function.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) recovery: Aid in the recovery process following TBI by promoting neuroplasticity, reducing inflammation, and improving cognitive function.

A woman holding the left side of her neck

An Overview of Vagus Nerve Stimulation as a Therapeutic Approach

The vagus nerve stimulation therapy is a drug-free approach to treating various conditions by using electrical impulses to modulate neural activity. Primarily, it is an FDA-approved treatment for depression in adults who do not respond positively to medications. By delivering mild pulses to the vagal nerve, this technique can influence the communication between the brain and different organ systems.

Additionally, the vagus nerve plays a key role in regulating many body functions, such as heart rate, digestion, breathing, and cardiovascular activities. Thus, this treatment modality aims to restore balance, improve the normal functioning of vital organs, and alleviate the related conditions. Health professionals may combine them with rehabilitation and other therapies to maximise their effectiveness.

The electrical stimulation helps release neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins that help in mood regulation. These natural chemicals bind to opioid receptors to inhibit pain messages. Therefore, they play a role in reducing stress, anxiety, and pain perception. They can also help improve sleep patterns and enhance the overall sense of well-being.

Its Importance in Regulating Bodily Functions

One of the main functions of the vagus nerve is to regulate heart rate and blood pressure. It helps maintain a steady pulse rate by sending signals to the heart to slow down or speed up as needed. It also controls the muscles of the throat and voice box, which influences breathing.

Furthermore, it is significant in regulating digestion. It stimulates the release of digestive enzymes and increases the movement of food through the digestive tract. Thus, vagal stimulation can be beneficial for individuals with gastrointestinal disorders. Lastly, it plays a role in controlling inflammation and immune response.

A woman holding her left shoulder

How Vagus Nerve Stimulation Works

Vagus nerve stimulation involves a surgical procedure to implant a small pulse generator, similar to a heart pacemaker, under the skin in the chest area. It is connected to the left vagus nerve in the neck, delivering mild electrical pulses. These pulses travel along the nerve fibres and reach various areas of the brain.

The exact mechanism by which it exerts its therapeutic effects is not yet fully understood. However, it is believed that electrical stimulation alters the activity of certain areas of the brain, such as the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. They are responsible for mood regulation and emotional processing. By modulating these brain regions, the stimulation may help to alleviate symptoms of depression and other mental health disorders.

Moreover, the vagal stimulation shows anti-inflammatory effects. It helps to inhibit the release of cytokines to reduce systemic inflammation that contributes to various chronic illnesses. During the treatment, patients may experience a tingling sensation in the throat or neck area. Depending on the program, it can deliver intermittent or continuous stimulation.

Understanding the Electrical Impulses

The electrical impulses from the device mimic the natural electrical activity of the vagus nerve. They can vary based on their frequency, amplitude and duration. The frequency refers to the number of pulses delivered per second, while the duration is the time between each pulse. On the other hand, the amplitude is the intensity of the currents.

The device sends these pulses in a rhythmic pattern, typically at regular intervals throughout the device. The frequency of the stimulation can vary depending on the condition. In the treatment of depression, a lower frequency of stimulation is helpful, while for epilepsy, a higher frequency is ideal.

A woman pinching the bridge of her nose with her fingers

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Applications: Treatment-Resistant Depression

One of the main purposes of vagus nerve stimulation is to manage treatment-resistant depression. This condition refers to cases of depression where multiple conventional treatment approaches have failed to provide significant relief. It includes inadequate alleviation of symptoms despite taking medications or undergoing psychotherapy. Individuals with treatment-resistant depression often struggle to find relief.

Using a stimulator device is one of the promising options for people with depressive disorders. Several practices have shown that the direct stimulation of the vagus nerve leads to significant improvements in allaying the symptoms. Moreover, it modulates electrical brain activity to help regulate mood, resulting in positive changes. Thus, patients do not have to rely solely on medications.

Aside from improving mood, vagal nerve stimulation also helps increase the remission rate in patients. A study has shown sustained improvements in depressive symptoms for up to five years. This highlights the potential of electrical therapy as a long-term, non-pharmacological option. It can serve as an adjunctive treatment to other treatment methods in the battle against depression.

Benefits of the Treatment for Depression

  • Non-drug treatment: Vagal nerve stimulation can provide relief for those who have not responded to conventional antidepressant medications.
  • Long-term efficacy: It can lead to sustained improvements in mood and depressive symptoms over a long period of time.
  • Reduced severity of symptoms: It can aid in the reduction of the severity of depression, including sadness, hopelessness, and lack of interest or pleasure in activities.
  • Adjunctive treatment option: It can complement other modalities, providing an additional tool for managing depression and enhancing treatment outcomes.
  • Reversible: The effects are reversible, allowing for adjustments or discontinuation of treatment as necessary.

A woman closing her eyes and resting

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Applications: Bipolar Disorder Management

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition characterised by extreme mood swings that include periods of mania and depression. Traditional treatments involve a combination of medication and therapy. However, for some individuals, these methods may not be enough to manage their symptoms effectively. In these cases, vagus nerve stimulation can be a beneficial alternative or adjunctive treatment option.

Similar to its use in major depression, vagal nerve stimulation helps regulate mood by releasing neurotransmitters. It has shown a significant reduction in the frequency and severity of mood episodes. It can also help improve overall mood stability and reduce suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, it can give years of stable remission.

However, there are certain limitations to take into account. The treatment may not be suitable for everyone, as individual responses can vary. Stopping the stimulation can result in a serious relapse within a couple of months. Lastly, re-establishing remission may be difficult after a break. Therefore, it is crucial to follow a long-term plan to prevent potential adverse events.

Benefits of the Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

Vagal nerve stimulation modulates the neural circuits responsible for mood regulation. This can help stabilise the extreme mood characteristics of bipolar disorder. Additionally, it helps decrease symptoms of anxiety and impulsivity in some patients. As a result, it lessens the frequency and severity of manic and depressive episodes.

Another key benefit is augmenting the efficacy of other treatments. Many individuals may combine medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle modifications with electrical stimulation. Thus, individuals with previously limited responses can experience greater symptom relief. Moreover, consistent therapy can give long-term remission. Overall, it helps achieve greater stability and enhances the overall quality of life.

A man with his glasses in his hand and soothing himself

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Applications: Refractory Epilepsy Treatment

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes recurrent seizures or uncontrollable shaking. It is a common condition affecting people of all ages. Anticonvulsants often help manage the symptoms. However, refractory epilepsy is a condition where seizures do not respond to conventional medications. In these cases, vagus nerve stimulation can be a valuable alternative option.

Vagus nerve stimulators offer long-term treatment for people with refractory epilepsy. It helps in reducing seizure activity by modulating the excitability of brain cells. The electrical impulses can increase the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which help to calm overexcited neurons. Hence, it prevents them from firing abnormally and triggering a convulsion. Furthermore, it is a treatment option for patients who are not candidates for surgery.

Individuals may control the stimulation of the device when they sense an oncoming seizure. A health professional can determine the appropriate settings and adjust the timing, intensity, and frequency of the impulses to achieve the best seizure control possible. Moreover, regular follow-up appointments will be necessary to fine-tune the settings and monitor the effectiveness of the treatment.

Benefits of the Treatment for Epilepsy

One of the main benefits of epilepsy treatment is its significant reduction in seizures. The therapy can lead to a decreased frequency of attacks and shorter seizure duration. This can lead to a noticeable improvement in the number of attacks, decreasing the impact of epilepsy on daily activities.

Another advantage is its long-term effectiveness. Patients experience a gradual reduction in the intensity of seizures as they continue treatment. In addition, it has long-term positive effects. This can indicate a sustainable and reliable means of managing epilepsy for an extended period. This minimises the risk of unwanted side effects.

A woman holding the back of her neck and her hips

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Applications: Cardiovascular Disease Management

Vagus nerve stimulation also shows potential as a therapeutic approach for managing cardiovascular diseases. The vagus nerve plays a key role in regulating heart rate, blood pressure, and other functions. By stimulating the nerve, it helps to modulate the activity of the nervous system, which controls these functions. This can help treat several conditions, such as abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia, hypertension, and heart failure.

One of the primary applications is in the treatment of heart failure. It is a chronic condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood sufficiently, leading to fatigue and shortness of breath. The nerve stimulation can help improve cardiac function and enhance hemodynamic parameters. It can also help increase exercise tolerance in individuals with heart failure.

Another significant use is the treatment of hypertension or high blood pressure. Hypertension is a major risk factor for the development and progression of cardiovascular diseases. The electronic pulses help decrease blood pressure within a healthy range by modulating sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. Overall, it shows positive effects in improving cardiovascular health.

Benefits of the Treatment for Stroke Recovery

  • Vagus nerve stimulator devices promote neuroplasticity. It is the ability of the brain to reorganise and form new neural connections following a stroke.
  • Improve motor recovery after stroke by modulating cortical excitability. It may lead to improvements in muscle strength, coordination, and overall motor functions.
  • Improve cognitive function in stroke survivors by improving attention, memory, and executive function. This can aid in rehabilitation efforts and help individuals regain their cognitive abilities.
  • The therapy has the potential to reduce disability and improve long-term outcomes for stroke survivors. It may translate to decreased reliance on caregivers and increased participation in social and recreational activities.

A woman clutching the base of her neck

Right Cervical Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Most procedures involve connecting an implantable device in the left vagus nerve. However, right cervical vagus nerve stimulation can be an alternative for patients not suitable for left nerve stimulation. This approach targets the right vagus nerve, which has connections to key areas of the brain involved in regulating mood and autonomic functions.

The right cervical nerve stimulation can activate specific nerve branches in the neck and provide localised benefits. For example, the right vagus nerve has connections to limbic structures, making it useful for interventions for mood and anxiety disorders. Additionally, it is effective in managing heart failure in preclinical studies and has positive outcomes in chronic inflammatory diseases.

One application of this stimulation is in the management of migraine headaches. Migraines are severe head pain with sensitivity to light and sound. Stimulating the right vagus nerve can help alleviate these symptoms and reduce the frequency and intensity of migraine attacks. Overall, it modulates neural activity in these regions, offering a targeted and personalised approach for various neurological and psychiatric conditions.

How It Works

The device sends regular doses of electrical pulses to the vagus nerve in the neck. These signals travel along the nerve pathways and into the brain. This can help regulate several bodily functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. Moreover, it stimulates the limbic system and frontal cortex, which are responsible for controlling emotions.

Right cervical vagal nerve stimulation for hypertension may have an inhibitory effect on sympathetic activity, which is responsible for elevated blood pressure. By modulating the autonomic nervous system, the therapy can help bring blood pressure levels back to a healthier range.

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Transcutaneous Forms of Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) represents a non-invasive alternative to traditional implantable devices. It offers therapeutic benefits through external stimulation of the vagus nerve. tVNS typically involves the application of electrodes to the skin surface, targeting specific areas of the ear or neck where the vagus nerve is accessible. This approach utilises specialised devices to deliver controlled electrical stimulation, such as handheld pulse generators or ear clip electrodes.

One of the key advantages of transcutaneous electrical stimulation is its ease of use and convenience. It allows for self-administered treatment without the risks associated with surgical implantation. This accessibility makes tVNS an attractive option for individuals seeking interventions without adverse side effects. Furthermore, it is generally well-tolerated, making it suitable for long-term use as a standalone therapy or adjunctive treatment.

Another benefit is the management of chronic pain conditions. The low-voltage electrical currents can help block pain signals and release endorphins. Devices such as Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) machines are portable and applicable to various areas of the body. They can help relieve pain symptoms, reduce inflammation, and relax tense muscles.

How It Works

Adhesive electrodes are placed on the skin near the target area to deliver mild electrical impulses. It stimulates the sensory nerves, overriding the nervous system to control pain. In low frequencies (2-10 Hz), it triggers the release of natural painkillers like endorphins. It also improves blood circulation in the area.

In high frequencies (50-120 Hz), the currents stimulate the nerves to block pain signals. This mechanism is known as pain gating, where certain nerve fibres close the pathways of pain signals to the brain. Consequently, it lessens pain levels. The settings of the device are adjustable to suit individual comfort levels.

A woman clutching the left side of her neck

Safety Guidelines for Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Safety guidelines for vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) are crucial to ensure the well-being of individuals receiving this therapy. Firstly, it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider regarding using electrotherapy as a treatment option. They can conduct a thorough evaluation, including an assessment of the medical history and the overall health status of the patient. This can help determine the suitability of the individual for undergoing the procedure.

Secondly, patients must follow the operation guidelines for controlling the device. It involves how and when to adjust the intensity and frequency levels of the electrical stimulation. It is also important to follow a regular check-up to make necessary adjustments to parameters. In case of any discomfort, individuals should immediately contact their provider.

Lastly, patients should be educated about the potential risks and benefits of nerve stimulation therapy. Some of the common side effects may include skin irritation or allergic reactions at the electrode site, dizziness, headache, or muscle twitching. Therefore, monitoring and reporting of any adverse reactions is crucial.

Who Is Suitable for the Treatment?

The following individuals are suitable for the therapy:

  • Epilepsy: Individuals with epilepsy, including children, are suitable candidates for vagal nerve stimulation. It is particularly beneficial for those with drug-resistant epilepsy.
  • Treatment-resistant depression: Patients without visible improvements with at least two different antidepressant medications.
  • Chronic pain: Individuals with chronic conditions, such as neuropathic pain and joint pain, can benefit from the therapy.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Nerve stimulation can help reduce symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
  • Atrial fibrillation: People with a high risk of arrhythmia-related complications.
  • Sleep apnea: Individuals with difficulty breathing while sleeping.


Vagus nerve stimulation is a medical procedure that can help regulate bodily functions and treat various physical and psychiatric conditions. It works by implanting a device near the collarbone to send electrical impulses to the vagus nerve and stimulate it. The treatment has shown numerous benefits in improving symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, and cardiovascular diseases. This is especially beneficial for people who are not responding well to drugs.

Individuals are given a handheld device that can control the settings of the electrical stimulation, ensuring comfort and efficacy. However, it is crucial to follow safety guidelines and consult with a healthcare provider when considering this treatment option. Furthermore, those who are not suitable candidates for surgery may opt for tVNS, involving the use of a portable machine. Nevertheless, regular monitoring and reporting of any adverse reactions are essential for a successful treatment outcome.

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