There are twelve pairs of nerves that communicate information from the human brain to the human body. The longest, and the most complex, of these nerves is the vagus nerve. Derived from the Latin word meaning to rove or wander, the vagus nerve connects the brain stem to the spinal cord and communicates information to different tissues and organs in the body. When there is damage to the vagus nerve as a result of a spinal cord injury or disease, such as a tumor, sensory communication, motor communication and parasympathetic functions can be disrupted or impacted.
To understand the significance that vagus nerve damage symptoms can present, let’s first have a quick review of human biology.
Human Nervous System
The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, connected nerves and sensory organs. Divided primarily into two groups – the sympathetic and parasympathetic system – the nervous system allows us to sense, feel, respond, and function. The vagus nerve controls functions of the parasympathetic system, including sensory functions for the throat, heart, lungs and abdomen, taste, the ability to swallow, and basic speech function, as well as sensory capability in the digestive tract.
The role of the vagus nerve doesn’t stop there. It is also involved with the body’s ability to lower both heart rate and blood pressure, to breathe deep and relax, to communicate between the brain and stomach, and to control fear and anxiety. In some patient cases, stimulation of this nerve is used to improve or heal disorders.
How Does the Vagus Nerve Get Damaged?
In addition to a spinal cord injury or trauma that can affect the vagus nerve, there are a number of medical disorders that can damage this important nerve. Among those conditions are diabetes, alcoholism, and acute viral infections that affect the upper respiratory system. Complications from some surgical procedures can also damage the vagus nerve.
When there is damage to the vagus nerve, a variety of symptoms can occur. Emotional disturbances such as depression and anxiety can be a symptom of a damaged nerve. Difficulty with breathing, swallowing, and pulse rate may be present. Other symptoms that relate to the stomach and digestive system, such as weight gain, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, delayed ability to digest food, acute heartburn related to digestion issues, and fainting can be caused by vagus nerve damage. Less severe symptoms of vagus nerve damage can include a paresthesia – the feeling of pins and needles or tingling – in extremities.
Furthermore, any kind of stress to the gastro-intestinal tract can irritate or damage the vagus nerve. Frequent vomiting, excessive use of spices which are hard to digest, frequent and excessive use of alcohol, and other gastric irritations that strain the throat and esophagus can cause irritations that may have symptoms related to vagus nerve damage.
Treating Different Parts of the Nervous System
Because the vagus nerve is responsible for many different functions of the nervous system, diagnosing and treating a patient can be challenging. Obviously, there can be a number of different sources of pain, irritation or dysfunction that go beyond just the vagus nerve when a patient presents with gastric, blood pressure and/or emotional disturbances.
Under medical supervision, a patient can receive treatment that stimulates the vagus nerve to improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, blood pressure and heart rate abnormalities, and some gastric related disturbances. Other treatments can include physical therapy exercise that target the soft palate and top of the mouth.
Vagus nerve damage can also be treated using pharmaceutical prescriptions and/or surgical techniques. While many patients do not require significant treatment for their nerve disorders, those with damage that greatly impairs heart rate or breathing functions may require therapies to offset potentially life-threatening circumstances.
Perhaps the most known symptom of a damaged or disordered vagus nerve is fainting spells. Medically referred to as a vasovagal reflex or syncope, this type of fainting usually is triggered by the sight of blood or emotional distress. In these cases, the trigger causes a sudden and dramatic drop in heart rate or blood pressure, followed by a brief period of unconsciousness or fainting.
It is believed that the vagus nerve is activated or stimulated by the trigger, sending a corresponding message to the nervous system. When this erroneous message is received by the nervous system, blood pressure and heart rate drop precipitously, causing a fainting episode. While inconvenient and disruptive, vasovagal reflex is generally not harmful or dangerous and does not require medical treatment.
When To Seek Medical Attention
Any condition that impacts the nervous system should be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. If there has been injury to the spine that may have caused a tear or compression of the vagus nerve, or if medical or environment conditions may be exacerbating symptoms of distress, it is best to see the advice and guidance of your doctor immediately.