Vagus Nerve Stimulator
What is a vagus nerve stimulator?
A vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) is a device that can help prevent seizures. When it's
implanted, it has 2 parts, a pulse generator and leads. The pulse generator sits in
your chest under your skin. The leads run from the generator to the vagus nerve in
your neck. External VNSs are now also available. They are put over the neck or worn
over the ear lobe.
The VNS is similar to a pacemaker. The pulse generator creates low-energy electrical
signals, and the leads carry those signals to the vagus nerve. VNSs are programmable,
so you can change the strength, duration, and frequency of the pulses as needed.
The vagus nerve is a long nerve that travels from your brain, through your neck, and
into your chest and belly. It has branches that go to your vocal cords, to some of
the muscles of your throat, the ear lobe, and to other organs inside your body. You
have one vagus nerve on the left and one on the right. A VNS is used to stimulate
the left vagus nerve.
Most of the vagus nerve fibers carry signals to your brain. Once the signals get to
the brain, they travel through both of its sides. A smaller number of vagus nerve
fibers carry signals away from the brain.
In addition to helping prevent seizures, a VNS can improve mood and reduce pain and
inflammation. The FDA has approved these devices for recurrent or chronic depression
that has not responded to antidepressants. They may also be used for certain forms
of headaches, such as migraines
Why might I need a vagus nerve stimulator?
If you have seizures due to epilepsy, your healthcare provider may recommend medicines
to help control your symptoms. If you continue to have seizures even when you take
the medicines, or if you have significant side effects, it might make sense to consider
other treatment choices. These may include eating a ketogenic diet (a diet high in
fat and low in carbohydrates), having brain surgery, or getting a VNS.
There are some reasons why you might need to get a VNS, such as:
Your medicines don't control your seizures.
You are unable to follow a ketogenic diet.
You continue to have seizures while on a ketogenic diet.
You don't want to have surgery.
You are not a candidate for surgery.
You had surgery, but you still have seizures.
Getting a VNS also makes sense for some people who have depression. If you have depression,
your healthcare provider may recommend a combination of lifestyle changes, medicines,
and therapy. Your healthcare provider may also refer you to a psychiatrist. If you
have tried multiple types of treatment choices and still have severe depression, you
may benefit from a VNS.
People suffering from severe headaches, pain, or certain inflammatory diseases might
also benefit from a VNS.
What are the risks of a vagus nerve stimulator?
Most people do very well when they get a VNS. But as with any treatment, getting a
VNS does have some risks. Complications due to placement of the implanted VNS are
not common. But they may include:
The most common complication of a VNS once it's in use is hoarseness. Other, less
frequent problems are:
Most VNS side effects will improve or resolve with adjustment of the VNS settings.
If you have sleep apnea, using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine
while you sleep may help.
There are a few other potential risks related to the implanted device. It may not
work properly if one of the leads breaks, if the leads are not in the correct position,
or if the pulse generator malfunctions. These are rare complications, though.
Over time, the battery's power will drain. It's important to replace the battery before
it loses power.
How do I get ready for a vagus nerve stimulator?
Placing an implanted VNS is a surgical procedure. Talk to your healthcare provider
about what to do to prepare for its placement.
Tell your healthcare provider about all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter
medicines like aspirin. Ask whether you should stop taking any of them ahead of time.
Let your healthcare provider know if you have any medicine allergies. Also discuss
your health history, including if you have had recent problems such as a fever or
if you think you might be pregnant.
In some cases, you may need additional tests before your procedure. These might include:
Monitoring with a video electroencephalogram to characterize and localize seizures
Chest X-rays and electrocardiogram (ECG) to make sure your lungs and heart are normal
Blood tests to make sure you are healthy
You’ll need to not eat and drink after midnight the night before your procedure. You
will also need to arrange to have someone drive you home from the hospital or surgery
What happens during a vagus nerve stimulator placement?
Your healthcare provider can help explain the details of your surgery. A neurosurgeon,
a vascular surgeon, or an otolaryngologist and a team of other healthcare providers
will place the VNS. An otolaryngologist is a healthcare provider specializing in ear,
nose, and throat conditions. You will probably have general anesthesia (numbing medicine).
It will make you sleep so that you feel no pain or discomfort during the procedure.
You will likely be able to go home the same day.
You may receive antibiotics to help prevent infection.
Your healthcare team will carefully monitor your vital signs, like your heart rate
and blood pressure, before, during, and after the procedure.
After cleaning the left side of your neck and chest, your surgeon will make a small
incision in each spot.
Your surgeon will move your neck tissues and muscles out of the way to find your left
Your surgeon will also create a pocket between the muscles and skin of your chest.
Your surgeon will create a tunnel, pass the leads through the tunnel, and wrap the
ends around your vagus nerve.
Once the team has attached the leads to the pulse generator, they will test the VNS.
The surgeon will place the pulse generator in the pocket in your chest and surgically
close your skin.
Your healthcare team will take you from the operating room to the recovery room for
What happens after a vagus nerve stimulator is implanted?
Talk to your healthcare provider about what you can expect after your surgery. Your
medical team will continue to watch you closely as you recover. When you wake up,
you may have some pain or nausea. If so, medicines can help it go away. You can resume
a normal diet as soon as you are able. After you are feeling more awake and doing
well, someone can take you home. Your surgeon may give you a prescription for pain
Keep an eye on your incisions as they heal. You might notice a small amount of drainage
from them. This is normal during the first few days. Let your healthcare provider
know right away if you have increased redness, swelling, or draining from your incision,
high fever, or severe pain.
Make sure to keep all your follow-up appointments so that your healthcare provider
can monitor your progress. About 2 weeks after your surgery, your healthcare provider
will turn on your VNS. Once your healthcare provider has turned it on, they can change
its settings during your follow-up visits if needed.
Talk to your healthcare provider about how best to use your VNS. If you have auras
before your seizures, you may be able to use a magnet to activate your VNS. This may
alter or prevent a seizure from happening. (Auras are symptoms that happen before
You should also talk to your healthcare provider about what to avoid once your VNS
is in place. For example, you may not be able to have some types of magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) studies or certain heat treatments involving shortwave or microwave.
You will continue to need medicines to control your seizures. But if you respond very
well to VNS, your healthcare provider may lower your doses or stop some of them. You
may notice that your seizure control continues to improve over the next several years.
You may also notice improvements in your mood. You may feel more alert and less sleepy
during the day.
Eventually, you will need to have the battery of your VNS replaced. This can usually
be done as an outpatient procedure using the existing leads.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
The name of the test or procedure
The reason you are having the test or procedure
What results to expect and what they mean
The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
What the possible side effects or complications are
When and where you are to have the test or procedure
Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure
Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
When and how you will get the results
Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure