Vagus Nerve Stimulation

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Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a way to treat epilepsy (a condition that causes seizures). VNS works much like a pacemaker in that it delivers a light electrical signal to the vagus nerve. This helps to control seizures or other activity.

What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is way to treat certain conditions, most commonly for epilepsy (a condition that causes seizures). VNS uses a small device, much like a pacemaker, to deliver a light electrical shock to the vagus nerve. This helps to control seizures or other activity when medicines or surgery either don’t work, or aren’t an option.

The vagus nerve starts in the brain and branches throughout the body. It is part of your autonomic nervous system. This is the group of nerves that control your bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, breathing, and sexual response. When the vagus nerve is stimulated by a VNS device, the result is a specific response. For example, a person may have fewer seizures.

How Does a VNS Device Work?

A VNS device is a thin, flat disk about 1.5 inches across. It contains a battery that can last for 1 to 15 years and runs all of the time. The strength and duration of the electrical signals are programmed by a neurologist [noo-ROL-uh-jist] (brain and nerve specialist) usually a few days or weeks after it is implanted in the chest. Some devices come with a special magnet bracelet so patients, family members, or caregivers can control the stimulator at home.

What are the risks and/or side effects?

VNS is not for everyone. It is best for people who have specific needs. Risks include:

  • Infection at the implantation site
  • Bleeding
  • Pain or inflammation at the incision site (wound)
  • Damage to nearby nerves or tissue

Side effects may include:

  • Hoarseness or changes in your voice
  • Coughing
  • Pain in the throat, neck, or body
  • Spasms in the throat or larynx
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach upset after eating (indigestion), feeling sick to your stomach (nausea), or vomiting
  • Tingling or prickling feelings in the skin

Most of these side effects will go away over time. Ask your healthcare provider about your specific questions or concerns.

What are the benefits?

VNS is usually used along with anti-epileptic drugs. It will not stop seizures completely, but you may have fewer, less severe seizures that don’t last as long. It may also shorten the time it takes to recover from a seizure and improve your attitude and sense of well-being.

How do I prepare?

  • Talk with your doctor and family members about VNS. Ask any questions you may have.
  • Make sure your doctor knows about all prescriptions, over the counter medicines (such as cough syrup or allergy pills), inhalers, patches, vitamins, and herbal remedies you are taking.
  • Follow all instructions from your doctor about eating and drinking before your procedure.

How is it done or administered?

A small incision (cut) is made on the upper left side of the chest by the collarbone. The device is placed directly under the skin. Another incision is made in the lower part of the left neck. The wire from the device is wrapped around the vagus nerve. It takes anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes to do the procedure.

When will I know the results?

You will know how VNS works for you after it has been programmed and adjusted. It can take a few weeks to several months to customize it to your needs.

What are follow-up requirements and options?

You will need to see your doctor on a regular basis at first, then less as your symptoms stabilize.

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