The vagal nerves carry signals between your brain, heart and digestive system. They’re a key part of your parasympathetic nervous system. Vagus nerve damage can lead to gastroparesis, food not moving into your intestines. Some people with vasovagal syncope faint from low blood pressure. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can treat epilepsy and depression.
The vagus nerve, also known as the vagal nerves, are the main nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system. This system controls specific body functions such as your digestion, heart rate and immune system. These functions are involuntary, meaning you can’t consciously control them.
Your left and right vagal nerves contain 75% of your parasympathetic nervous system’s nerve fibers. These fibers send information between your brain, heart and digestive system.
The vagus nerves are the 10th of 12 cranial nerves. The vagus is known as cranial nerve X, the Roman numeral for 10.
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Your vagal nerves are part of your body’s nervous system. They play important roles in involuntary sensory and motor (movement) functions, including:
Your parasympathetic nervous system controls “rest and digest” functions. It’s the opposite of your sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response.
These two nervous systems make up your autonomic nervous system. This system controls involuntary body activities.
Your vagus nerves are the longest cranial nerve, running from your brain to your large intestine. Your left vagus nerve travels down the left side of your body. The right vagus nerve travels down the right side of your body.
“Vagus” is the Latin word for wandering. Your vagal nerves take a long, winding course through your body. They exit from your medulla oblongata in your lower brainstem. Then, the nerves pass through or connect with your:
Your left and right vagal nerves join to form the vagal trunk. They connect at your esophageal hiatus, the opening where your esophagus passes into your abdominal cavity (belly). The vagal trunk includes anterior (front) and posterior (back) gastric nerves that go to your abdomen.
Your vagal nerve branches are:
Your vagus nerve can be involved with these conditions:
Vagus nerve conditions cause different symptoms depending on the specific cause and affected part of your nerve.
You may experience:
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) uses electrical impulses to stimulate your left vagus nerve. Healthcare providers implant a small device in your chest, under your skin. A wire runs under your skin connecting the device and nerve.
The device sends mild, painless electrical signals through your left vagus nerve to your brain. These impulses calm down irregular electrical activity in your brain.
Your healthcare provider may order one of these tests to diagnose a problem with your vagal nerves:
Treatments for gastroparesis include:
Treatments for vasovagal syncope include:
These lifestyle changes can keep your nervous system healthy:
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your vagal nerves play key roles in helping your body manage involuntary functions like heart rate, breathing and digestion. Damage to your vagal nerves can cause digestive problems like gastroparesis. Healthcare providers use VNS to send electrical signals to your brain. These impulses calm down irregular electrical activity in your brain.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/11/2022.
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