Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) uses an implantable device to stimulate the vagus nerve in your neck. The electric impulse travels to your brain, where it’s dispersed to different areas to change the way brain cells work. VNS is sometimes called a “pacemaker for the brain.” VNS is approved to treat difficult-to-control epilepsy, depression and as a rehab aid for stroke.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a type of neuromodulation, which is a treatment that alters the activity of nerves. Vagus nerve stimulation involves implanting a device that sends regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to your brainstem through your vagus nerve in your neck. After reaching your brainstem, the electrical charge is discharged to different areas of your brain to change the way brain cells work.
Vagus nerve stimulation works like a pacemaker for your heart. In fact, VNS is sometimes called a “pacemaker for the brain.”
VNS is a treatment option that you and your healthcare professional might consider after other traditional treatments haven’t been successful. The use of VNS is limited to a select group of individuals who have treatment-resistant epilepsy or treatment-resistant depression. More recently, VNS has been approved as a rehabilitation aid for select people who’ve had a stroke.
Your vagus nerve is one of 12 pairs of cranial nerves that send electrical signals between your brain and different parts of your neck, head and torso. They control many of your body's functions.
Your vagus nerve is cranial nerve X (10) and is the longest cranial nerve. You have one vagus nerve on each side of your body. Both start at your brainstem and pass through your neck to your chest and abdomen.
Your vagus nerve is part of a circuit that links your neck, heart, lungs and abdomen to your brain.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) to treat three medical conditions.
Researchers don’t know precisely how vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) works.
As an aid to control seizures, VNS is thought to:
As an aid to manage depression, VNS is thought to:
As an aid for stroke rehabilitation, VNS is thought to:
You’re usually unaware when the device is on or feel the stimulation. However, you may have a tickling feeling in your throat or neck, your voice may become hoarse or you may have a mild cough when the stimulation is on.
If the stimulation bothers you in any way, call your healthcare provider. They can adjust the programming to lower the amount of stimulation.
You may not be a candidate for vagus nerve stimulation if:
Before your surgery, your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam. You may have blood drawn to ensure you don’t have any health problems that could cause concern.
Surgery to implant the device can be done as an outpatient procedure. Some surgeons might recommend that you stay overnight, though.
On the day of surgery, you’ll take an antibiotic to lower the risk of an incision-related infection.
Your neck and chest are cleaned for surgery. You may have the surgery performed under local anesthesia, with medication to numb the surgical areas. More commonly, you may be given general anesthesia to keep you asleep during the procedure.
The vagus nerve stimulation device consists of a vagus nerve stimulator (pulse generator) device and a wire lead (insulated wire) with electrodes at the end of the wire.
Your surgeon begins by making two incisions (cuts), one on the left side of your neck to expose your vagus nerve and the other on your upper left chest. The coil electrodes at the end of the lead wire are gently wrapped around your left vagus nerve through the incision made in your neck. Your surgeon then guides the insulated lead wire extending from the electrodes from your neck and down to your chest at the chest incision. They then connect the end of the electrode to a battery. The battery is a little bigger than a silver dollar. It goes through the incision into your chest into a pocket made over your muscle.
Once the device, lead wire and electrodes are implanted, the system is tested. The device is usually turned on at the lowest setting for 30 seconds to 90 seconds to make sure it’s stimulating your vagus nerve. Your surgeon then tests the system. Finally, they sew the device to your pectoralis fascia (a thin collagen layer covering your pectoralis major muscle) with permanent stitches (sutures).
The surgery usually takes 45 minutes to 90 minutes to perform.
You’ll return to your healthcare provider’s office in two to four weeks to turn on the stimulator device (or increase the stimulation if it’s already been turned on). The device is programmed by your healthcare provider using a computer, programming software and programming wand. The device will be set to deliver electrical impulses (measured as strength of current) to your vagus nerve at a certain pulse frequency (measured in Hertz), for a certain length of time (measured in microseconds to seconds) and on a specific time on/time off cycle (measured in seconds to minutes). Settings usually start at low levels to see how your symptoms respond and to check for side effects.
The device’s on/off cycle is selected by your healthcare provider. But you’ll also be given a hand-held magnet that can be swiped over the device to send extra stimulation to your brain if you sense a seizure is about to happen. When used during home rehabilitation exercises following a stroke, swiping the magnet over the device activates it to begin 30 minutes of stimulation. Holding the magnet over the device turns the stimulator off. Removing the magnet will resume your healthcare provider’s programmed stimulation cycle. In some batteries for epilepsy, an increase in your heart rate can also trigger activation.
You’ll need to see your healthcare provider as directed to ensure the device has remained in the correct position in your chest and is working properly. Adjustments can be made in device programming if needed.
You’ll need to have the battery replaced about every six years (some batteries last as short as one year to as long as 15 years). When the battery level is low, the entire stimulator is replaced. This is done in a short procedure that only requires a small incision in your chest wall.
Tell all of your healthcare providers that you have a vagus nerve stimulator device before having any medical procedures or imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test can interfere with your device.
Common risks of vagus nerve stimulation include:
Common side effects of vagus nerve stimulation include:
If you experience these side effects, they may lessen, or you may become less bothered by them over time. If you can’t tolerate the side effects, it might be possible to adjust the electrical impulses or the device may be temporarily or permanently turned off.
Serious side effects include:
You can return to your everyday activities 48 hours after your device is implanted. Your stitches are self-absorbing, so they don't need to be removed.
Vagus nerve stimulation doesn’t cure epilepsy. It probably won’t completely stop your seizures, either, and you’ll need to continue taking anticonvulsant medication. The goal of VNS is to reduce the number, length and severity of your seizures.
A 454-patient study showed a 50% or greater reduction in seizures in 37% of patients at one year, 43% at two years and 43% at three years.
Research remains unclear on how well VNS works to treat depression. So, it’s usually not recommended until medications, in combination with psychotherapy, have first been tried.
The FDA based its approval on studies involving more than 200 people with treatment-resistant depression. After one year, 20% to 30% of people with depression reported significant improvement. But other people with depression didn’t improve or their symptoms worsened.
The FDA based its approval on the results of a 108-patient study. Patients, split into a 53-patient study group and a 55-patient control group, were asked to complete 300 to 400 physical therapy exercises for 90 minutes a day, three times a week for six weeks. The study group received VNS throughout the 90-minute sessions. People in the treatment group had an average limb mobility score increase of 5 points compared to a 2.4 point increase in people in the control group. About 47% of those in the treatment group saw a 6 point or more improvement in limb mobility score 90 days post-therapy compared with a 24% improvement in people in the control group.
For all FDA-approved uses, it may take one year or longer to know if or how well VNS is working for you.
If you have these signs of infection, call your healthcare provider right away:
If you experience any of the following, call your healthcare provider right away:
Check with your healthcare provider before having imaging tests that might affect your VNS device, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or before you have any other medical device implanted.
Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to produce some anti-inflammatory properties. This has led to studies of VNS in such long-term inflammatory disorders as:
It’s also being studied in:
It’s always a good idea to call your health insurance company and ask if the cost of the VNS device is covered. Although VNS has received FDA approval for use in epilepsy, depression and as a rehabilitation aid after stroke, its use in these medical conditions is specific and limited. You might need to meet certain criteria before your insurance company grants coverage.
No. There are external or commercial VNS devices. However, these external products can’t match the frequencies and voltages used in implanted devices. The electrical signals they produce have to pass through your skin and neck muscles. They’re not precise enough to access and regulate the specific activity of your vagus nerve, as an external device isn’t attached to your actual nerve.
The long-term side effects of commercial VNS devices are yet to be fully known. If you’re interested in commercial VNS devices, it’s best to talk with a healthcare provider specializing in this area.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) uses an implantable device to send mild electrical pulses to your vagus nerve, which then travels to your brain. If you have difficult-to-control focal seizures, depression or have limited upper arm mobility following a stroke, ask your healthcare provider if VNS might be a treatment option.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/16/2022.
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