What are Vagus Nerve Headaches?

What Is a Vagus Nerve Headache? Your Questions Answered

(AscendHealthy.com) – One might experience headaches, including cluster headaches and migraines, for many reasons. The human body is a complicated and intricate system, and it can often be hard to pinpoint the cause of health problems. One cause that can contribute to headaches, but is often overlooked, is the vagus nerve.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. As the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves, it reaches from the brain, through the face, and then into the thorax and abdomen, affecting various body systems. There is a left and right vagus nerve.

Vagus Nerve Damage

Vagus nerve dysfunction can happen from sudden injuries that result from bending, twisting, lifting, or pulling. Whiplash from car accidents and sports injuries are common causes of nerve damage. Studies also show that degeneration of the spine, often related to aging, can cause nerve issues. Poor posture can also lead to issues in the vagus nerve.

If the vagus nerve is damaged or pinched, it can contribute to various health issues, which can vary significantly depending on the location of the nerve damage. Some symptoms related to the vagus nerve include:

  • anxiety and depression
  • neck pain
  • migraines or cluster headaches
  • nausea or vomiting
  • inflammation
  • epilepsy
  • loss or change of voice
  • loss of gag reflex
  • low blood pressure
  • changes in digestion
  • and more

What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?

Vagus nerve stimulation is a treatment option that stimulates the vagus nerve with electrical impulses. In conventional treatment, the device is surgically implanted under the skin of the chest. A wire connects the electrical device to the left vagus nerve and sends electrical signals through the left vagus nerve to the brainstem. Although there is a right vagus nerve, it is likely to carry fibers that have nerves to the heart, and as such, it is not used in the treatment.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Treat Migraines and Headaches

In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved vagus nerve stimulation as a treatment for migraines, as trial evidence showed decreased pain levels after 30 minutes and 60 minutes of device usage. The following year, vagus nerve stimulation was approved as a preventative measure for cluster headaches. Again, evidence showed that when comparing patients who deal with cluster attacks, those who used the device had significantly fewer attacks per week than patients who only used regular medication.

Vagus nerve stimulation may be ideal for patients who wish to avoid medications and is considered safe in various patient groups. It is also safe to use multiple times per day. However, the device may affect heart rhythm, which could be dangerous for individuals with heart conditions. Otherwise, vagus nerve stimulation is not associated with any major side effects, and it is non-invasive, which reduces the potential for complications such as surgery-related infection.

Discussing Treatment Options with a Physician

If a patient experiences migraines or cluster headaches with an unknown cause, it may be worth discussing the possibility of vagus nerve damage with their doctor. It is sometimes hard to diagnose a damaged or improperly functioning vagus nerve due to the fact that it can present such varied symptoms throughout the body.

Doctors often test for vagus nerve damage through a gag reflex test but can also assess possible pinched nerves throughout the patient’s neck, spinal cord, or elsewhere in the body. If a doctor determines or suspects there is vagus nerve damage, the patient should discuss vagus nerve stimulation as a potential treatment option. Their doctor can review the potential benefits and side effects and help them make an informed decision.

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