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Before You Consider VNS Therapy

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is approved by the FDA as an option to treat epilepsy and treatment-resistant depression. However, experts at University of Utah Health recommend you get a thorough evaluation for surgery as the first step. Work with your providers to find out which surgery is best for you.

What Is the Vagus Nerve?

Most people don’t know the vagus nerve by name. It runs from the base of your brain, through your neck and down each side of your body. (Vagus means “wandering” in Latin.)

The vagus nerve plays a role in several key functions, including:

  • heart rate,
  • breath, and
  • the ability to relax.

It’s even responsible for “gut feelings,” because it tells your brain how your body’s organs are doing at any given time. The mind-body connection is very real.

Vagus Nerve Disorders

Problems linked with vagus nerve can include:

Vagus Nerve Stimulator Surgery

You will first have a surgery to implant the vagus nerve stimulator. The surgery is an outpatient surgery, which means you can leave on the same day as your surgery. It’s also relatively quick.

Your doctor will use general anesthesia to make you comfortable. He or she will then make an incision in the left side of your neck to attach a spiral-shaped electrode around the nerve (which looks like a piece of linguine). Then your doctor will make a second incision in your chest to implant a pacemaker called a pulse generator or vagus nerve stimulator. There are no incisions on your head.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Device Programming

A few weeks after surgery, you’ll return to the hospital where your doctor will program the VNS device to deliver electric impulses in regular intervals (for example, 30 seconds on and off for five minutes). While the pulse generator won’t detect seizures, you can use a special magnet to manually start the device if you feel a seizure coming.

You can also use the magnet to turn off your VNS device, like when you’re speaking or singing in public—VNS therapy can make your voice hoarse. You might also have a slight pain in your neck when the currents are surging.

While VNS therapy is not a cure for movement disorders or other conditions, it can:

  • reduce the length and severity of seizures,
  • improve your mood,
  • improve your overall quality of life.

Find a Neurosurgeon

Next Steps

If you would like to find out more information about vagus nerve stimulation, you will need to get a referral from your primary care provider or neurologist to be seen at our comprehensive epilepsy center.

To inquire about VNS therapy for treatment-resistant depression, you will need to fill out a screening form and get a referral from your primary care provider or psychiatrist to be evaluated for our psychiatric neurosurgery program.

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