Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is a type of therapy that involves the use of a device to target an area of the body, in an effort to tackle symptoms of ill mental health.
Essentially, the device stimulates the vagus nerve – a nerve in the body – with electrical impulses. For some, VNS is a highly-effective treatment.
How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Work?
VNS is a rather new treatment for mental health. Every human has two vagus nerve’s – one on each side of the body. They run from the brainstem right to the chest and abdomen. VNS is normally only carried out following a physical exam.
Traditional VNS normally involves a device being surgically implanted under a person’s skin. Then, a wire is threaded under the skin, which connects the device to one of the vagus nerve’s.
After being activated, the device automatically sends electrical signals along the vagus nerve, right up to the brainstem. Then, the brainstem sends signals to various areas of the brain.
Only the left vagus nerve is used, as the right vagus nerve is typically linked closer to the heart – which would increase the risk involved.
In more recent years, a newer approach, which doesn’t involve surgical implantation, has emerged. This is something that is more appealing to some.
Stimulation takes place in cycles. A person should see their doctor throughout their treatment to ensure that everything is running to plan. It can take several months to see an improvement.
The VNS device will remain in the body for as long as it has battery. It will often take a few years for the device to run out of battery.
When is Vagus Nerve Stimulation Useful?
While VNS is traditionally used to manage seizures and convulsions in Epilepsy, it can also be used for some mental health conditions.
It is usually only used when other treatments have failed to have their desired effect. For example, a person may have tried medication and a type of talking therapy, without success.
Therefore, there isn’t a set condition that VNS is used for. Instead, it is reserved for those who are struggling to overcome their condition.
Typically, those with treatment-resistant Depression make up the majority of people that are treated with VNS. Those with trauma-based conditions may also try VNS.
Advantages of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
There are a few advantages to Vagus Nerve Stimulation:
- VNS offers another treatment for those that have failed to see any improvements in their symptoms from treatments like medication and talking therapy
- VNS involved minimal effort. For those that would rather not talk to anyone, or take medication, VNS can offer a useful alternative.
- VNS can have a long-lasting impact. As mentioned before, the device can stay implanted for years. If it does result in a boosted mood, this in theory should last a long time!
Disadvantages of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
There are a few disadvantages to Vagus Nerve Stimulation:
- There are some risks involved with VNS. For example, pain and infection are possible due to the implanted device. Headaches and throat pain are possible side effects following VNS. We should point out that it is normally a safe procedure.
- VNS can take several months to see any improvements. This is a long wait for someone that has already struggled to derive any benefit from other treatments.
- VNS does not involve the face-to-face aspect of talking therapy. This is something that many people find to be useful. VNS doesn’t give a person the chance to discuss their problems, unlike traditional talking therapy.
How effective is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
The research for the use of VNS on Depression is rather mixed. But it is important to note that those who undergo VNS will typically have struggled with other treatments – which may skew the evidence.
Because VNS has only recently been considered as a treatment for mental health, there is limited research.
The biggest study involved participants that had either Depression or Bipolar Disorder, who had tried other treatments without success. The study found that VNS was most effective for those with low to moderate cases of Depression. For those who have more severe cases, and have not responded to other interventions, there was limited success .
A study a few years later concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to definitely state VNS was a effective treatment for mental health conditions .
Not everyone will see an improvement in their symptoms from VNS. This can leave a person despondent – especially if they have tried other treatments. But there are alternatives to therapy.
Further research should be able to provide more of an insight into the effectiveness of VNS. Though we will need to wait for such information to become available.
How to find a therapist?
It is recommended that you contact your GP and inform them of your problems. They will refer you to the relevant mental health team.
If you are aiming to use the private sector, you could ask your GP or someone you know for a recommendation. You can also look online – the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy have a therapist directory on their site.
- List of Therapy Types
- Therapy Home
- Everything You Need To Know About Talking Therapy
- Talking Therapy or Medication: Which is Better for Mental Health Problems?
- FAQ’s About Talking Therapy
- What To Do When Therapy Isn’t Working: Alternatives to Talking Therapy
If talking therapy alone hasn’t worked, then your Doctor may suggest adding a medication.
There are many other types of therapy, you can see an exhaustive list of them here.
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If you are struggling with your mental health, help is available. With the right support and treatment, you can make a recovery. For information on helplines, or if you are in a state of crisis, please visit our crisis page by clicking on the relevant link for your geographical location (United Kingdom), (United States), (International). You can also see how to get mental health treatment and the process involved by clicking this link.
 Sackeim, H. A., Rush, A. J., George, M. S., Marangell, L. B., Husain, M. M., Nahas, Z., Johnson, C. R., Seidman, S., Giller, C., Haines, S., Simpson, R. K., & Goodman, R. R. (2001). Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS™) for Treatment-Resistant Depression: Efficacy, Side Effects, and Predictors of Outcome. Neuropsychopharmacology. 25 (5): p713-728.
 Rush, J., Marangell, L. B., Sackeim, H. A., George, M. S., Brannan, S. K., Davis, S. M., Howland, R., Kling, M. A., Rittberg, B. R., Burke, W. J., Rapaport, M. H., Zajecka, J., Nierenberg, A. A., Husain, M. M., Ginsberg, D., & Cooke, R. G. (2005). Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Randomized, Controlled Acute Phase Trial. Biological Psychiatry. 58 (5): p347-354.