Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on August 24, 2022
3 min read

Vagus nerve stimulation is a type of epilepsy treatment. A doctor puts a small device similar to a pacemaker into your body to trigger your vagus nerve, which runs from your brain to your torso. It serves many organs, including your voice box (larynx), lungs, heart, and digestive tract.

Your doctor puts you to sleep with general anesthesia. They insert a device, which is about the size of a silver dollar, under the skin in the upper part of your chest. Then, they run a wire under your skin from the stimulator to an electrode attached to the vagus nerve, which they can access through a small cut in your neck.

After it’s put in, the stimulator is programmed to send out pulses of electricity at regular intervals, depending on your case. Your doctor can adjust the settings and raise the current slowly. Adjustments are done through a wand placed over the VNS, which communicates with the device through the skin.

The doctor will also give you a handheld magnet. When you bring it near the stimulator, it creates a current of electricity to stop a seizure as it happens or to make it less severe.

VNS is an add-on therapy, which means you use it in addition to another type of treatment. You’ll keep taking your seizure medications. But you may be able to lower the dose over time.

Doctors don’t know exactly how it works. They do know that the vagus nerve is an important pathway to your brain. They think triggering this nerve sends electrical energy into a wide area of your brain. That disrupts the unusual brain activity that causes seizures. Another theory is that triggering the nerve makes your brain send out special chemicals that lower seizure activity.

Medications called anticonvulsant or anti-seizure drugs work for most people, but some can’t handle the side effects.

Surgery to remove the part of the brain that causes seizures is another option. But not everyone should get that surgery.

Maybe your seizures happen throughout your brain, or your medications can’t control them. That’s when VNS might be a good option.

VNS can lead to complications including:

  • Injury to the nerve or nearby blood vessels, including your carotid artery and jugular vein 

  • Infection

  • Bleeding

  • Allergic reaction to anesthesia

Side effects usually happen only when the nerve is being stimulated. They generally are mild and tend to go away over time. The most common ones include:

  • Hoarseness

  • Coughing

  • Throat pain

  • Tingling in the neck

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Headaches

  • Shortness of breath

  • Sleep problems

VNS isn’t a cure. It’s rare for seizures to go away completely, and most people still need to take epilepsy medication after the procedure. But many people who have VNS notice that their seizures are less severe and happen as much as 20% to 50% less often. You may also need less time to recover from a seizure. 

People who’ve had VNS may also notice improvements in their mood and quality of life. But it can take months, a year, or longer of VNS before you notice a big difference.