What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
Last updated: December 2021
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a type of epilepsy treatment that may stop or reduce seizures. A doctor implants a battery-powered device that looks like a pacemaker under the skin in your chest. A wire leading from the device is wrapped around the vagus nerve in your neck.1,2
The device then automatically sends regular electrical pulses to your brain. If you feel a seizure coming on, you can swipe a magnet over the device for added stimulation. This may help stop a seizure.1,2
VNS for epilepsy
VNS by the numbers:1,2
- Researchers have studied VNS as a seizure treatment as far back as the 1930s.
- In 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the therapy for adults and children 12 and older.
- In recent years, the FDA extended approval to children as young as 4.
- Today, more than 100,000 people living with epilepsy have a VNS implant.
How does VNS work?
VNS works by sending a mild electrical pulse to the brain through the vagus nerve. This nerve regulates activities in your body that are out of your control, such as heart rate and breathing. The vagus nerve is like a conveyor belt, delivering information from your brain to other parts of your body and back again.1
Researchers think VNS keeps seizures in check by boosting blood flow to key areas of the brain. It may also elevate neurotransmitters, a substance in the brain that helps to control seizures. There is also evidence that VNS alters electroencephalogram (EEG) patterns during a seizure.1
For many people with epilepsy, a rapid heart rate is a sign of an oncoming seizure. You may not even know it is happening. Newer VNS models detect a faster heartbeat and trigger added stimulation to stop a seizure.1
Who should consider VNS for epilepsy?
VNS is not suitable for everyone with epilepsy. You must meet certain criteria and try other therapies before doctors will consider you for the procedure. VNS is for people living with:1
- Focal and some types of generalized seizures
- Drug-resistant epilepsy (uncontrolled after taking 2 or more medicines)
- Epilepsy that cannot be treated with surgery
An epilepsy specialist will look at your medical history to figure out if VNS is an option for you.
What does research show about VNS?
In 2016, researchers carried out the first large-scale study of VNS therapy. Their goal was to find out how people with epilepsy respond to VNS over time.3
Researchers looked at data from more than 5,500 people enrolled in a VNS registry dating back to 1999. They also reviewed nearly 80 other studies on VNS. Their results looked at how many people cut their seizures by half or more. Here is what they found:3
- 0 to 4 months after VNS implant
- 49 percent responded to VNS
- 5.4 percent were seizure-free
- 24 to 48 months after VNS implant
- 63 percent responded to VNS
- 8.2 percent were seizure-free
Besides fewer seizures, another study showed VNS could boost mood, thinking, and memory.4
Any side effects of VNS are manageable and may go away over time, according to research studies. They may include:4
- A burning or tingling feeling in the hands, arms, legs, or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble swallowing
A small number of people may have permanent side effects or need to have their device removed. Most side effects are a result of mistakes during surgery.4
If you have asthma, sleep apnea, or some heart problems, VNS could worsen these conditions. People with one vagus nerve cannot have this procedure. Talk to your doctor about whether VNS is right for you.1
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