Vagus Nerve Therapy

Vagus Nerve Therapy

The vagus nerve is considered the 10th cranial nerve, cranial nerve X, or CN X, and forms an integral part of brain–gut axis, which in turn makes up the automatic nervous system. This two-way biological pathway interfaces between the brain and the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract.

Vagus is the Latin word for wandering, which refers to the meandering path the nerves takes through the body. As the longest of 12 pairs of cranial nerves, the Vagus nerve originates in the brain, where it runs from the medulla oblongata of the brainstem, into the neck and thorax, where the right and left then follow different paths. The right side travels behind the esophagus and primary right bronchus, whereas the left travels in front of the aortic arch, behind the primary left bronchus and into the esophagus, both sides then meet to form esophageal plex, which then continues onto the abdomen.

Its overall function is to help the body enter ‘rest and digest’ mode, it’s also what kicks into action when the body attempts to exit fight-or-flight mode. It does this by providing signals to control involuntary bodily functions in the voice box, ears, tongue, sinuses, esophagus, diaphragm, stomach, heart and skin and is therefore responsible for most unconscious actions such as breathing, coughing, sneezing, salivation, swallowing, digesting, vomiting, heart rate, blood pressure, muscular contractions, sweating, touch sensation, etc.

In addition to regulating the function of our internal organs, the Vagus nerve has also been shown to play a key role immune response and mood regulation.

Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Scientists have long known that stimulating the Vagus nerve could provide a number of benefits to the related organs and their bodily functions. VNS was first suggested all the way back in the late 1800’s by the American neurologist James L. Corning, however, the treatment wasn’t to catch on until nearly a century later when, in 1988, Penry et al. performed the first human implant of VNS device, which then received FDA approval in 1988.

Vagus Nerve Stimulating devices are like pacemakers for the brain, and works by delivering mild electrical pulses to the brainstem via the Vagus nerve; these signals do not cause pain and can rarely even be felt. The device is around the size of a dollar and is implanted into the body in the chest wall.

Newer models are already shrinking in size, and the onboard battery, which currently lasts up to 15 years, will also increase its life span with new iterations. Replacing the battery is less invasive than the initial implant, and simple requires a small incision in the chest through which the replacement can be performed.

Patients can control the device manually through use of a small magnetic bracelet and key ring. The doctor must first set the VNS to manual mode, after which, the magnet can be held over the generation site to deliver additional stimulation, or alternatively, the magnet can be positioned to cease stimulation temporarily.

VNS Effective Treatment For Numerous Health Conditions

Since the vagus nerve touches so many vital parts of the body, it makes sense that positive stimulation of the nerve could provide several health benefits to the functions in which it plays a key role. Some of these benefits include:

+ Improve blood flow to the brain
+ Regulate electrical pattern that occurs during a seizure
+ Increase level of neurotransmitters that control seizure development, specifically norepinephrine and serotonin
+ Stimulate the motor cortex of the brain for better coordination of limbs and extremities to aid in stroke rehabilitation
+ Increase levels of neurotransmitters in the brain that help regulate mood and manage depression

These properties can provide an alternative treatment to traditional medications or supplement a course of medication as a complementary therapy.

Common treatments for VNS include depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, epilepsy, and recovery from stroke.

Vagus Nerve Therapy

VNS Treatment to Combat Seizures From Epilepsy

The first successful application of Vagus Nerve Stimulation came in 1997 when the first implanted VNS device received FDA approval as a treatment to combat epileptic seizures. The procedure is carried out in conjunction with anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs), not in place of them. It is only administered in cases where patients do not respond well to AEDs and cannot undergo brain surgery.

Overall, VNS is considered a palliative procedure, meaning that it provides effective relief but not a complete cure. Thus, the treatment can reduce the number and impact of seizures but will not completely prevent them from occurring.

In cases where VNS does reduce the frequency of seizures, it is usually possible to decrease the dosage of AEDs, which in turn reduces the risk of side effects. However, it’s important to note that VNS is not successful in all patients. Some do report a notable reduction, others say it’s only slight, and some report almost no change at all.

VNS Treatment for Depression Anxiety and Improved Mental Health

Shortly after the FDA approved implanted VNS devices to help treat epileptic seizures, a number of patients began reporting some unexpected benefits. When questioned regarding the symptoms, side effects and results each patient experienced, a common pattern started to emerge.

In addition to the results that were to be expected; less severe and/or shorter seizures, as well as faster recovery from seizures, and overall fewer visits to the emergency room, the majority of patients also reported:

These unforeseen benefits strongly hinted at the potential treatment of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, as well as the possibility of improving delayed development and other cognitive conditions.

These findings led scientists to conduct further research into what causes these unexpected benefits and how these properties may be leveraged to create more treatments from the same device.

Similarly to electroconvulsive therapy, VNS utilizes mild electrical pulses to promote the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. Since depression is linked to an imbalance in these chemical messengers, it’s believed that careful stimulation of the nerve can help better regulate these chemicals and, in turn, reduce the emotional symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic stress.

This understanding led to the 2005 FDA approval of VNS for treatment-resistant depression (TRD). The effectiveness of VNS for TRS is mixed and is only approved for those with chronic/recurrent TRD who failed to respond to at least four or more prior treatments.

Studies that led to the approval of the treatments showed all patients reported a long duration until onset of 2-3 months. Then, after one year, between 20-30% of patients had responded well and reported significant improvements; almost half of these patients reported a complete cure of symptoms.

The remaining patients did not respond as well, and reported no change whatsoever, or, in some cases, that their symptoms actually worsened. Due to this discrepancy, treatment remains a last line of defense, and will not covered by most insurers, even those who specifically cover TRD.

Hoarseness of the voice, coughing and dry tickly throat are typically the most common symptoms, however these are usually temporary and subside quick. If any of the above symptoms persist, seek medical attention.

Non-Invasive Vagal Toning

Although implanted VNS devices do not work on all patients, when the procedure does work it’s highly successful and extremely effectively. However, undergoing surgery to have any implant placed in the body can be daunting, fortunately it’s possible to experience the benefits of VNS therapy via non-invasive treatment called Vagal Toning. Vagal toning leverages the same concept as VNS by the Vagus nerve for therapeutic purposes, but without the need to have a device implanted in the body.

Instead, Vagal toning utilizes listening therapy. This exercise, known as the ‘Safe and Sound Protocol’, is a 5 hour journey through music, soundscapes and ambient noise, similar to the soundtrack on an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) video, captures our emotions and opens the creative mind.

According to the Unyte website, the technology:

“Brings together the client, therapist and the SSP to create a safe space for brain and body integration and healing to achieve impactful, long-lasting results.”

Patients’ who’ve undergone vagal toning report similar results as those who opt for VNS therapy, namely improvements in sleep, digestion and focus, as well as a greater ability to be proactive and more confidence to speak their minds.

Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, a self proclaimed psychonutritionist who specializes in “exploring the human body’s secrets for good mood and mental wellness,” says that just one session can help patients feel more relaxed and calm, and even more notable improvements will occur after several sessions.

It’s important to note that the viral TikTok videos discussing Vagus nerve icing are quite misleading, and not advisable for people with certin health conditions. Instead there are better ways to manually stimulate the Vagua nerve, for example instead of splashing ice cold water on the face simply use cold water.

Susanna Harkonen, a clinical trauma professional, explains:

“I have witnessed a positive impact on panic attacks, grief, anxiety, depression, depersonalization, sleeping disturbances, porous boundaries, and much more.”

In Conclusion

With several effective treatments that all take advantage of medical science’s ability to manipulate the Vagus nerve to reap its numerous health benefits, VNS therapy has become an important tool in arsenal of physicians assigned to treat mental health conditions. Although we currently understand a lot about the Vagus nerve there is still likely much we have to learn, which in turn should mean, with more research comes more treatments.

Vagus Nerve Therapy 3
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