The Vagus Nerve is the longest nerve in the body and is involved in many important bodily functions like food digestion, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Roughly 12% of all people with epilepsy will develop a condition called Vagus Nerve Damage at some point. It’s caused by a disruption of signals to or from the brain that makes it difficult or impossible to control seizures.
Vagus Nerve Damage isn’t contagious but it can happen at any time in anyone’s life. In most cases, it happens when seizures have become frequent for years and progressively more severe.
This article breaks down the science and explains vagus nerve damage in detail – including its causes and symptoms, as well as whether it is reversible.
What is Vagus Nerve Damage?
The vagus nerve is a long, thin nerve that starts in the brainstem and travels down to the abdomen. The function of this nerve is to send information between the brain and organs in our chest, such as our heart, lungs, and gut.
- The vagus nerve is a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system, a part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is composed of two branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Vagus nerve damage may lead to a variety of symptoms, from minor issues to life-threatening complications.
The vagus nerve connects various organs and muscle groups in your body to your brain. The vagal complex includes the oropharyngeal branch, which transmits signals between organs in your head and neck area; the solitariovagal reflex that connects muscles in your chest cavity with those in your abdomen; and cranial nerves X (the jugular), XI (the spinal accessory), IX (the glosso-pharyngeal), and XIX (the vagus).
Damage to the vagus nerve typically causes problems with swallowing and speech. A medical condition called Bell’s palsy is an example of a type of damage to the vagus nerve. It is characterized by facial paralysis, which can affect the ability to breathe through the nose, swallow properly, and talk.
Another type of damage is achieved during a surgical procedure called carotid endarterectomy. In this procedure, plaque buildup in one of the carotid arteries that supply blood to the brain can be removed with techniques similar to those used for open-heart surgery in order to prevent stroke or death from a cerebral vascular accident—a sudden blockage or rupture of one or more arteries supplying blood flow to an organ (in this case, the brain). The vagus nerve can be injured during these procedures.
What Causes Vagus Nerve Damage?
How does the vagus nerve get damaged? There are a number of ways that our vagus nerve can get damaged, including surgery (as mentioned above).
- Damage to the vagus nerve can also be caused by head and neck trauma.
In such cases, the nerve is wounded or its blood supply is interrupted as a result of injury to the blood vessels that supply it in the neck. Other causes include surgery, radiation therapy, and arteriovenous malformation from an underlying condition such as leukemia or lymphoma.
Can GERD Damage Your Vagus Nerve?
Most people know that GERD can cause a lot of painful symptoms. However, what they don’t know is that your vagus nerve plays an important role in regulating your stomach function (including stomach acidity.) A damaged vagus nerve can potentially cause low stomach acidity – and by extension, GERD. However, it doesn’t appear to be the other way around. In other words, GERD doesn’t seem to damage the vagus nerve.
GERD is a chronic condition with no known cure, but there are things you can do to help prevent the damage from getting worse. GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a condition in which stomach contents back up into the esophagus and cause symptoms like heartburn. The esophagus consists of a muscular tube about 20 feet long that connects your throat to your stomach. When you swallow food, it passes down through this tube to your stomach.
However, when you have GERD, the sphincter muscle of the esophagus can become weak, allowing stomach contents to move from your stomach back into the esophagus. If you have many symptoms of acid reflux and are over the age of 4 years, you may have an ulcer. The most common type is a hiatal hernia in which part of the stomach pushes up into the esophagus. This condition may also be called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD and it can occur due to a lack of mucus in the stomach lining, which is what normally protects it from acid.
Symptoms of Vagus Nerve Damage
The vagus nerve is a mixed cranial nerve that is used to control a variety of involuntary body functions. It is derived from the tenth cranial nerve, and it runs in the gut and heart, as well as various other organs like the lungs, stomach, and intestines. It has two major branches: the vagus proper in the thorax and the accessory branch. The vagal branch is responsible for controlling the gut and heart rate of a person.
Some of the symptoms that can be caused by damage to this nerve include chest pain, wheezing or cough especially if it’s a chronic or persistent cough that doesn’t go away with treatment, difficulty breathing or swallowing air which could mimic asthma symptoms or other conditions like acid reflux disease or GERD, difficulty breathing when lying down and any other symptoms related to the heart.
In addition, damage to the vagus nerve can result in:
- Changes in heart rate and rhythm
- Changes in blood pressure levels
- Unexplained weight loss, which may be from fluid loss due to dehydration or effects of a low pulse rate, low blood sugar levels, or abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).
However, it is important to differentiate between a damaged and irritated vagus nerve. Irritated Vagus Nerve symptoms are different from the symptoms of the damaged vagus nerve and they include
- A feeling of tingling, numbness, or a mild electric shock in the neck and head
- Dizziness when swallowing
- Difficulty swallowing
Can Vagus Nerve Damage Cause Seizures?
A seizure is the result of an abnormal, excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain. The diagnosis of a seizure is made when somebody has at least two unprovoked episodes.
The vagus nerve helps control the heart rate, breathing, and digestive system. It also helps to regulate emotions such as sadness or anger.
Vagus Nerve damage can cause seizures because it can cause changes in the electrical activity of your brain, heart rate and blood pressure which triggers epilepsy.
Pinched Vagus Nerve – Are Symptoms Different?
If a person feels that they have a pinched nerve, they should be aware of the common symptoms. The most common one is pain in the neck and down the arm.
Other symptoms are numbness, tingling, and loss of strength. If a person experiences any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks, he or she should see a doctor.
Even if you experience any of these symptoms and you only have them for 1 week then go to see your doctor as soon as possible because it might not be a pinched nerve.
Neck pain is a symptom of a pinched nerve, but it could be something else. A common cause is muscle spasms, which can lead to neck pain. If you have any of these symptoms and they don’t go away or get better with time, you should consult a professional in order to avoid long-term consequences.
How do You Test for Vagus Nerve Damage?
We can test for vagus nerve damage by using an exam, which is also known as a reflex test.
- A reflex test is where a doctor or nurse will lightly tap on one side of your knee with their hand and then the other. The same method applies to checking if you have a gag reflex. The doctor might tickle the back of your throat with a swab in order to make you gag.
If you cannot feel much or if you don’t experience a gag reflex, it is possible to have vagus nerve damage.
Your reflexes can be tested by your primary care physician or neurologist. They can stimulate the vagus nerve in order to check your responses. If you have symptoms of a vagus nerve problem, they might recommend treatments such as medication, physical therapy, or surgery.
What is Vagus Nerve Impingement – And Can You “Fix” It?
Vagus nerve impingement is a condition in which one or more branches of the vagus nerve are squeezed by some mass or tumor that has developed near it. This can result in symptoms such as pain, fullness, and shortness of breath.
Symptoms may also include:
- sharp pains or problems swallowing that come on suddenly
- pain radiating down the neck or throat
- excessive salivation with a sore throat/cough-painful hoarseness
The best way to deal with vagus nerve impingement is to go to your doctor for a check-up. They will be able to determine the best course of action to get rid of your issue, based on the cause of your vagus nerve impingement.
Is Vagus Nerve Damage Reversible?
Can a damaged vagus nerve be fixed? The answer is yes; vagus nerve damage can be reversible.
One surgical procedure that can help repair damage from an injury is vagus nerve transposition. In this procedure, surgeons detach the damaged vagus nerve from one place in the body and move it to another area in order to restore sensation and function. to the body.
- An animal suffering from vagus nerve damage would be unable to communicate with its internal bodily systems, such as the heart or lungs, and would be considered incurable. In humans, this type of damage is reversible and can be treated by vagus nerve transposition. This procedure involves detaching one of the branches of the vagus nerve that passes through the neck and reattaching it to another location in the neck.
Citation: “Vagus Nerve Damage Can be Reversible: One surgical procedure that can help repair damage from an injury is vagus nerve transposition.”Daniel P. Scolieri, M.D., M.H.S., et al.Journal.
Treatments for Vagus Nerve Damage
Possible treatments for a damaged vagus nerve are:
- physical therapy
- vagus nerve stimulation
Some people might have had to learn how to deal with the sensitivities of their vagus nerve damage by changing their diet or lifestyle. But if the damage is too severe, there are other treatments that can be done such as physical therapy, anticonvulsants, and surgery.
There is also a new treatment called Vagal Nerve Stimulation which can help treat the nerve sensitivities by sending electrical impulses to the vagus nerve. Vagus nerve stimulation was originally used to treat epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and then later, depression. There are many people who have been able to improve their quality of life by using the device for these disorders.
However, for some people, vagus nerve stimulation is not enough and other treatments might need to be done like surgery or physical therapy. For example, patients could have a vagotomy which would sever the nerve’s connection to certain par. It would also reduce the risk of seizures, infections, and cardiac arrhythmia.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
How do You Stimulate Vagus Nerve?
One way to stimulate it is through a surgical implant. The other is through cranial nerve stimulation which uses a surface electrode on the skin. Vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, is a treatment option for people with conditions like depression or epilepsy. It has also been studied as a possible treatment for people with autism spectrum disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Many of the proposed benefits of stimulation of the vagus nerve for people with autism spectrum disorder have been based on anecdotal reports. A 2018 systematic review found that there was insufficient evidence to support or reject a benefit. One study in animals has shown that vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) modulates social deficits in animal models of autism spectrum disorder.
- In a 2018 systematic review of the evidence for vagal nerve stimulation for people with autism spectrum disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome, the authors concluded that “there is not sufficient evidence to support or reject a benefit from vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) or implants.”
Despite being used for more than 20 years, evidence for its effectiveness as a treatment for idiopathic generalized epilepsy is lacking and preliminary evidence suggests that it is also ineffective for depression.
How to Use Tens Machine for Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
Tens Machine is a device that is used for electrically stimulating the innervation of a nerve. It is mainly used for chronic pain relief. The types of diseases that it can be used to treat are: low back pain, diabetic neuropathy, and postoperative pain in the back or neck.
When using a Tens Machine for vagus nerve stimulation, there are two main ways to use it: as an electrode pad or by attaching electrodes on the skin with gel. The pads can be worn on different parts of the body and then electric currents are passed through them by pressing a button on the machine. For those who want to place electrodes on their skin without the use of pads, they must moisten the area with water or gel first in order to get better contact between them and skin surfaces.
How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Without Equipment
As we mentioned, to stimulate the vagus nerve, you can use a simple exercise that you do every day. One of the most popular methods of stimulating the vagus nerve is by using a device called a tens machine. This machine involves placing an electrode on either side of your neck in order to send an electric pulse up to the nerve in your neck that stimulates it.
But there are also many ways of stimulating this nerve without equipment, such as through meditation, yoga or even listening to music. Vagus nerve stimulation helps people with a variety of health concerns, including:
- Depression and anxiety
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Chronic pain
- High blood pressure
In general, it is important to maintain the function and health of your vagal nerve, especially as you get older.
Vagus Nerve Overstimulation – A Real Risk?
There aren’t too many reports of vagus nerve overstimulation, although the risk is possible. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of talking to your doctor before trying any vagus nerve treatment on your own.