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Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) for Epilepsy : Benefits, Working, and Risks

What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) represents a cutting-edge medical intervention that harnesses the power of the vagus nerve, a crucial component of the body’s autonomic nervous system. This innovative therapy involves the implantation of a small, pacemaker-like device beneath the skin, typically in the chest area, which is connected to the left vagus nerve in the neck. By administering controlled electrical impulses, Vagus Nerve Stimulation modulates neural pathways, influencing a range of bodily functions.(1,2)

This intervention has found notable success in treating conditions like epilepsy and treatment-resistant depression, offering hope for individuals who have not responded to conventional treatments.(3)

Beyond its established applications, ongoing research is exploring the potential of Vagus Nerve Stimulation in addressing an array of conditions, from anxiety disorders to chronic pain, making it a promising frontier in modern medicine.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Epilepsy

For individuals grappling with epilepsy, the quest for an effective seizure medication can be a journey marked by varying degrees of success. Studies indicate that the likelihood of achieving seizure freedom diminishes with each subsequent attempt at a new drug regimen.(4)

Should you have undergone two or more prescriptions for epilepsy medications without the desired outcome, it may be prudent to consider alternative, non-pharmaceutical treatments. Among these options, vagus nerve stimulation emerges as a promising choice. Research has demonstrated its notable capacity to substantially reduce the occurrence of seizures in individuals with epilepsy.

VNS stands at the forefront of innovative therapies for epilepsy, offering hope to individuals whose seizures persist despite conventional treatments.(5)

How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Work?

Vagus Nerve Stimulation operates on the principle of neuromodulation, utilizing the vagus nerve, a major component of the autonomic nervous system. The vagus nerve plays a pivotal role in regulating various bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and mood. Here is a detailed explanation of how VNS works:(6)

  1. Device Implantation: The process begins with a minor surgical procedure in which a small, pacemaker-like device is implanted beneath the skin, typically in the chest area. This device is connected to a lead wire, which is carefully threaded under the skin and attached to the left vagus nerve in the neck.(7)
  2. Electrical Stimulation Parameters: Once the device is in place, it is programmed by a healthcare provider to deliver controlled electrical impulses. These impulses are typically delivered at specific intervals and intensities.
  3. Transmission of Impulses: The electrical impulses generated by the Vagus Nerve Stimulation device are sent along the lead wire to the vagus nerve. From there, they travel up to the brain, influencing neural activity.
  4. Modulation of Neural Pathways: The precise mechanisms of how VNS exerts its effects are still under study. However, it is believed that the electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve can modulate various neural pathways. This modulation is thought to have widespread effects on the brain, potentially reducing the likelihood of abnormal electrical activity that leads to seizures.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation is mostly used as an adjunctive therapy, meaning it is employed in conjunction with other antiepileptic treatments. It is often recommended for individuals who have not achieved satisfactory seizure control with medication alone.

Regular follow-up appointments with a healthcare provider are essential to monitor and adjust the device’s settings as needed. This ensures that the therapy remains effective and tailored to the individual’s evolving needs.

How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Help in the Management of Epilepsy?

Vagus Nerve Stimulation offers a unique avenue for managing epilepsy by directly targeting the neural pathways associated with seizures. Here’s how Vagus Nerve Stimulation contributes to the management of epilepsy:

  • Neurological Intervention: VNS operates on the principle of neuro-modulation, a technique that involves influencing neural activity. By stimulating the vagus nerve, VNS introduces controlled electrical impulses that traverse this nerve pathway.(8)
  • Role of the Vagus Nerve: The vagus nerve serves as a crucial link between the brain and various bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and emotional regulation. By accessing this nerve, VNS has the potential to impact these vital physiological processes.
  • Customized Electrical Stimulation: The Vagus Nerve Stimulation device gets personalized by a healthcare provider to deliver specific electrical impulses. These impulses are typically administered at regular intervals and tailored to the individual’s requirements. Over time, the settings may be fine-tuned to optimize therapeutic effects.
  • Influence on the Neural Circuitry: The electrical impulses generated by the VNS device travel along the vagus nerve to the brain. This targeted stimulation is believed to modulate various neural pathways, potentially reducing abnormal electrical activity that leads to seizures.(9)
  • Reduced Seizure Frequency: Through consistent electrical stimulation via Vagus Nerve Stimulation, some individuals experience a reduction in the frequency and intensity of seizures. It is crucial to note that the degree of improvement can vary, and responses to treatment may differ from person to person.

In essence, vagus nerve stimulation stands as a powerful tool in epilepsy management, directly influencing neural activity through targeted vagus nerve stimulation.

Are There Any Risks and Side Effects of Vagus Nerve Stimulation?

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is generally considered a safe and well-tolerated treatment option, but like any medical procedure, it does come with potential risks and side effects. It is important for individuals considering VNS to be aware of these potential outcomes.

Here are some of the risks and side effects associated with VNS:(10)

  • Voice Changes or Hoarseness: The vagus nerve is closely situated to the vocal cords. As a result, some individuals may experience temporary voice changes, such as hoarseness or alterations in pitch or tone. These effects are typically more pronounced during stimulation and may improve over time.
  • Cough or Throat Discomfort: The stimulation of the vagus nerve can sometimes lead to coughing or a sensation of throat discomfort, particularly during the activation of the device. This is generally temporary.
  • Neck Pain or Discomfort: Some individuals may experience mild discomfort or soreness in the neck area where the device is implanted or where the lead wire is attached to the vagus nerve.
  • Shortness of Breath: In rare cases, VNS may lead to shortness of breath or difficulty breathing during stimulation. This is a less common side effect but should be reported to a healthcare provider if experienced.
  • Wound Infection or Irritation: As with any surgical procedure, there is a small risk of infection at the site where the device is implanted. Proper wound care and hygiene are important to minimize this risk.
  • Allergic Reaction to Materials: While uncommon, some individuals may experience an allergic reaction to the materials used in the Vagus Nerve Stimulation device. This can manifest as redness, swelling, or irritation at the implantation site.
  • Seizure or Changes in Seizure Patterns: In rare cases, Vagus Nerve Stimulation may lead to an increase in seizure activity, especially if the device settings are not appropriately adjusted. This is why regular follow-up appointments with a healthcare provider are crucial for monitoring and optimizing the therapy.
  • Interaction with Other Medical Devices: There may be potential interactions between the VNS device and other medical devices, such as MRI machines or certain types of security systems. It is important to inform healthcare providers and technicians about the presence of the VNS device before undergoing certain procedures.

It is important that if you are considering Vagus Nerve Stimulation, you should discuss all the risks and benefits you are your healthcare provider. Additionally, regular follow-up appointments are critical to monitor for any emerging issues and to make any necessary adjustments to the device settings.


Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) therapy does not offer a cure for epilepsy, but it holds potential in reducing seizures by up to 50 percent, expediting post-seizure recovery, and addressing comorbidities like depression, ultimately improving overall well-being.(11) However, it is not a universal solution and should not replace established treatments like medications or surgery. If significant progress is not observed within about two years, discussions with a healthcare provider about deactivating or removing the device may be necessary. For those seeking non-drug options to complement current epilepsy treatments, Vagus Nerve Stimulation is a valuable consideration, contingent on consultation with a healthcare provider to determine candidacy and insurance coverage. With careful evaluation, Vagus Nerve Stimulation therapy may offer renewed hope and a better quality of life for individuals managing epilepsy.


  1. Schachter, S.C. and Saper, C.B., 1998. Vagus nerve stimulation. Epilepsia, 39(7), pp.677-686.
  2. Howland, R.H., 2014. Vagus nerve stimulation. Current behavioral neuroscience reports, 1, pp.64-73.
  3. Brodie, M.J., Barry, S.J.E., Bamagous, G.A., Norrie, J.D. and Kwan, P., 2012. Patterns of treatment response in newly diagnosed epilepsy. Neurology, 78(20), pp.1548-1554.
  4. Binnie, C.D., 2000. Vagus nerve stimulation for epilepsy: a review. Seizure, 9(3), pp.161-169.
  5. Milby, A.H., Halpern, C.H. and Baltuch, G.H., 2009. Vagus nerve stimulation in the treatment of refractory epilepsy. Neurotherapeutics, 6, pp.228-237.
  6. George, M.S., Nahas, Z., Bohning, D.E., Kozel, F.A., Anderson, B., Chae, J.H., Lomarev, M.M.D.P., Denslow, S., Li, X. and Mu, C.M.D.P., 2002. Vagus nerve stimulation therapy: a research update. Neurology, 59(6 suppl 4), pp.S56-S61.
  7. Yuan, H. and Silberstein, S.D., 2016. Vagus nerve and vagus nerve stimulation, a comprehensive review: part II. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 56(2), pp.259-266.
  8. Krahl, S.E., 2012. Vagus nerve stimulation for epilepsy: A review of the peripheral mechanisms. Surgical neurology international, 3(Suppl 1), p.S47.
  9. Fan, J.J., Shan, W., Wu, J.P. and Wang, Q., 2019. Research progress of vagus nerve stimulation in the treatment of epilepsy. CNS neuroscience & therapeutics, 25(11), pp.1222-1228.
  10. Ben-Menachem, E., 2001. Vagus nerve stimulation, side effects, and long-term safety. Journal of clinical neurophysiology, 18(5), pp.415-418.
  11. Mayo Clinic (2018). Vagus nerve stimulation – Mayo Clinic. [online] Mayoclinic.org. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/vagus-nerve-stimulation/about/pac-20384565.
Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:September 26, 2023

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