For this epilepsy treatment, a doctor puts a pacemaker-like device into your body to stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from your brain to your torso. It serves many organs, including your larynx (voice box), lungs, heart, and digestive tract.
How Is It Done?
Your doctor will put you under with general anesthesia. He’ll insert a device, which is about the size of a silver dollar, under the skin in the upper part of your chest. He’ll run a connecting wire under your skin from the stimulator to an electrode attached to the vagus nerve, which he can access through a small cut in your neck.
How Does It Work?
After it’s put in, the stimulator is programmed to generate pulses of electricity at regular intervals, depending on how much you can take. It could stimulate your nerve for 30 seconds every 5 minutes. The settings are adjustable, and the current is gradually increased as you can take more. Don’t do it yourself: The doctor will reprogram the device in his office. You’ll get a handheld magnet. When you bring it near the stimulator, it generates an immediate current of electricity to stop a seizure in progress or reduce the severity of the seizure.
VNS is an add-on therapy, which means it's used in addition to another type of treatment. You’ll continue to take your seizure medications. But you may be able to reduce the dose over time.
Who Gets It?
Medications called anticonvulsant or anti-seizure drugs work for most people. But some people either don’t respond to them or can’t tolerate the side effects. Surgery to remove the part of the brain that causes seizures is an option. But not everyone should get that surgery. Maybe your seizures are produced throughout your brain or your medications can’t control them. That’s when VNS is a good option.
How Does VNS Work?
Doctors don’t know for sure. They do know that the vagus nerve is an important pathway to your brain. They think stimulating the nerve sends electrical energy into a wide area of the brain. That disrupts the abnormal brain activity that causes seizures. Another theory suggests that stimulating the nerve makes your brain release special brain chemicals that lower seizure activity.
Are There Risks?
Yes. It could injure the nerve or nearby blood vessels, including your carotid artery and jugular vein. Plus there are risks with any surgical procedure, like infection, bleeding, or an allergic reaction to the anesthesia.
Does It Work?
VNS isn’t a cure. It’s rare for seizures to go away completely. But many people who have VNS notice that their seizures are less frequent and less severe.
Are There Side Effects?
The most common ones include hoarseness, coughing, tingling in the neck, and problems swallowing. These usually happen only when the nerve is being stimulated. These side effects generally are mild and tend to go away over time.