There are twelve main cranial nerves in the human body. The twelve cranial nerves start within the brainstem and branch outward throughout the body. The vagus nerve, the longest and most complex of them, is considered to be one of the most important because of what it controls.
We are going to discuss what happens when the vagus nerve is damaged and some treatments you can do at home to help yourself.
What Is The Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve, stems from the brain and traverses through the neck, thorax, and abdomen. It has control of the trachea, heart rhythm, bronchi and the digestive tract when the body is at rest.
Within the neck, the vagus nerve proceeds into the carotid sheath where it goes underneath the carotid artery and the jugular vein. At the base of the neck the vagus nerve branches into right and left. The right vagus nerve passes in front of the clavicle entering the body. The left vagus nerves pass down and between the left carotid artery and the subclavian joint as it enters the body.
The pharyngeal nerve section controls the muscles of the pharynx and soft palate. The superior laryngeal nerve cordons off into internal and external branches. The external branch innervates the cricothyroid muscle and the larynx. The interior laryngeal nerve also innervates the larynx. From this point, the vagus nerves go into the thorax.
In the thorax (the upper body beneath the ribcage) the vagus nerve forms an upper and lower vagal trunk. The vagal trunks contribute to the cardiac, esophageal and pulmonary branches. The cardiac branches act to slow the heartbeat. The bronchial branches constrict the bronchi in your lungs. The esophageal branches control the involuntary muscles in your esophagus, stomach, gallbladder, and pancreas. This branch also stimulates contractions in the muscular system. Finally, it descends into the abdomen where it controls gastrointestinal secretions.
As you can see the vagus nerve is extensive throughout the body. A lot can go wrong in many places.
Vagus Nerve Dysfunctions
There are two types of vagus nerve disorders. Those that happen when the nerve is underactive and those when the nerve has been overstimulated.
Underactive Vagus Nerve
Gastroparesis is when the muscles in your stomach are slow. This creates a situation where your stomach does not empty its contents in a normal fashion. Symptoms of this condition are nausea, heartburn, stomach pains and sometimes weight loss. This, in turn, can lead to other gastrointestinal disorders such as acid reflux.
Bradycardia is an abnormally slow heart rate attributed to vagus nerve damage. This diagnosis is given when the heart beats less than 60 beats per minute.
Overactive Vagus Nerve
Tachycardia is an excessively high heart rate. This is indicated when the heart beats faster than 100 beats per minute. Medications like beta blockers, among others, are used to slow the heart rate.
Vasovagal syncope or fainting. Fainting happens when the heart rate slows and the blood pressure slows down. Fainting is not dangerous. However, it can cause injuries if a person faints at the wrong time in the wrong place.
Vagus Nerve Damage Symptoms
The following are examples of symptoms you may experience with vagus nerve damage.
A common symptom when something is amiss in the body is the pain. Identifying the source and the reason for the pain can be a difficult task. The pain you feel is an indication of some kind of inflammation due to an injury or trauma within the body.
Trauma can come from a small injury like a sprain or a cut someone on your body or it can be something more serious like hardening of the arteries. All create pain and hence, inflammation.
A dysfunction in the vagus nerve in the throat can create a case where your gag reflex disappears. If your gag reflex is damaged you may experience trouble swallowing.
Issues with swallowing will then, in turn, make it difficult to eat. In more severe cases, the individual patient may find that the doctor will have to insert a feeding into a tube to make sure they are obtaining enough nutrition.
Muscle Cramping in Your Throat
There may be a time when your voice doesn’t sound like it used to. This is because the muscles in your larynx are not working properly. The vagus nerve is a direct link to the muscles in your larynx.
Should the nerve damage be severe enough it could paralyze the muscles in your throat. If that should occur you could possibly lose the use of your voice entirely.
People who are prone to developing peptic ulcers in the stomach may suffer from vagus nerve dysfunction. The nerve dysfunction increases the acid in the stomach. You can get peptic ulcers not only in the stomach, but also in the lower esophagus, and the first part of the smaller intestines.
Common symptoms of peptic ulcers are burning sensation in the stomach region, nausea, vomiting, bloating, abdominal pain and more. If you suspect that you might have a peptic ulcer, see your doctor to discuss the proper course of treatment for you.
Others may develop constipation issues. The intestines are not regulating the intake of water properly. This creates a situation where the feces in your bowls hardens and makes it harder to empty your bowels.
Still, others may have problems with incontinence. Incontinence is a problem where you do not have control of urination or defecation.
Inflammation is the body’s response to stress. Whatever stresses your body, will cause inflammation. This can be illness such as arthritis, diabetes etc. Your body will also react with inflammation if you have some form of allergy or an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, IBS etc., all create severe inflammation in the body.
By stimulating the vagus nerve your body will reduce the inflammation. When the inflammation is reduced, you will start to feel healthier.
Anxiety, depression, fatigue, migraines, memory disorders, bad circulation, arthritis, and so much more can be treated by stimulating the vagus nerve.
Understanding your symptoms is important. It will help your doctor to determine the best course of treatment for you. Stimulating the vagus nerve is the goal. Which route to take in stimulating the vagus nerve is the puzzle.
How to Treat Vagus Nerve Damage at Home
Here are some ways to treat vagus nerve damage at home:
Medical Treatments That Require Medical Supervision
Vagus Nerve Stimulator
For some, their dysfunction requires electrical stimulation. Using a special device that sends signals to the vagus nerve to stimulate it. This device is very similar to a cardiac pacemaker. A VNS device will need to be implanted beneath the skin.
With gastroparesis, a doctor will assess the severity of the problem. He will then recommend options to you. Your doctor may treat you with medications if he or she deems it necessary. However, there are ways to stimulate the vagus nerve without the use of medications.
There are many ways that you can stimulate the vagus nerve. You can try cold showers, singing, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises. Tai chi, Qi gong, fasting, massages, acupuncture, and exercise can also stimulate the nerve.
Let’s discuss some of the exercises mentioned above;
Deep breathing exercises are a great way to help you relax as well as relieve anxiety and stress. You can do these exercises anywhere. In your office, in the car, at home and even in your own bed as you lie down. The idea of doing this is to help you relax and at the same time take in some extra oxygen. Here is a simple technique for a breathing exercise:
- Slowly breathe in through your nose – count to five as you breathe in.
- Fill your lungs and diaphragm with air.
- Slowly release the air from your lungs – count to five as you breathe out.
- Repeat this exercise 10 times.
Meditation is good for lowering your blood pressure, heart rate, stress and anxiety levels to help you relax. The breathing exercises mentioned above will help you with your meditation. Part of meditation is in the breathing. The other part is allowing your mind to let go.
If you are one that cannot sit still for any length of time then the next exercises will benefit you. Exercise programs such as Yoga, Tai chi, and Qi Gong will stimulate the vagus nerve and thereby improve your health. It is recommended that you try each one and find out which practice best suits you.
Yoga originated in ancient India as a physical, mental and spiritual exercise. Today, as it was then, yoga is a good physical and mental practice. The benefits of yoga are many. Practicing yoga can give you increased flexibility, muscle strength, and tone. Yoga is also good for improved breathing, energy, and metabolism. You may also see improvements in your cardio and circulatory health. You might also see some weight reduction. Continued practice of yoga will also help to protect you from further injuries.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial arts method that is practiced not for defense but for health benefits. Tai chi follows a philosophy of yin and yang. Yin and yang is about the balance between complementary forces. This is the core of Tai chi. Balance in your life. When your life energy is balanced, you maintain your health. As with yoga, Tai chi helps with high blood pressure, stress, pain, and stiffness. It also helps with mobility issues, protects against further injuries from falls and improves your cardiac and respiratory systems.
Qi gong (chi gung) is a martial arts method similar to Tai chi. Qi gong movements are akin to those of Tai chi. Both have coordinated body postures, movements, breathing, and meditation. Each of them promotes health and spirituality through martial arts forms. However, Qi gong forms vary from Tai chi. As with Tai chi and Yoga, Qi gong will help you keep your mobility in the joins as well as keep you flexible.
We discussed the vagus nerve location and function in the body. We talked about what can go wrong with the vagus nerve. We discovered that the complexity of the body means that it can be very difficult to find the trigger point of pain or disease. We also informed you of different ways to stimulate the vagus nerve after it has been damaged.
You can treat vagus nerve damage at home with care and consideration. Selecting the what works for your body to maintain your health and a healthy lifestyle is important. Exercises that are gentle on your body will not harm you if they are done properly. If you choose to try any of the above-mentioned exercises, and you are a beginner with them, we recommend that you find a class lead by a teacher. Following the exercises with an experienced teacher will ensure that you are doing the exercises properly and will achieve the benefits that you are seeking from those exercises.
Choosing the correct form of treatment is something to discuss with your medical practitioner.