What are the treatments for vagus nerve disorders?

A diagram showing the vagus nerve.

Vagus nerves originate in the brain stem, but each runs down the side of the neck to destinations such as the heart and intestines. These nerves play a role in regulating breathing, heart rate, and digestion. Patients with vagus nerve disorders can have a variety of symptoms, including low blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, difficulty swallowing, and digestive problems. Treatment is usually limited to reducing or eliminating symptoms through exercise and short- or long-term medication, but surgical intervention may also be required.

The vagus nerve controls certain skeletal muscles, including the larynx.

Exercises for vagus nerve disorders typically involve the pharynx, the throat area between the mouth and larynx. The patient may also be taught to exercise the soft palate or upper mouth. Through a combination of vocalizations, breathing techniques and movements, the exercises can stimulate the vagus nerves, thereby relieving some of the symptoms.

Patients with vagus nerve disease may need the help of a pacemaker.

Patients with vasovagal syncope commonly experience fainting when subjected to psychological distress, which can be triggered by viewing a disturbing scene or experiencing emotional shock. This is one of the vagus nerve diseases that can benefit from medications. Doctors may prescribe medication to regulate the patient’s blood pressure or antidepressants such as sertraline or paroxetine.

A vasovagal syncope is also called a common faint.

Vagus nerve disorders also include gastroparesis, a disorder where the stomach does not have enough muscle contractions to move food along the intestine properly. If severe, you may need to insert a feeding tube to get nutrients into the intestines without entering the stomach first. If the patient experiences nausea or vomiting, medications such as ondansetron may be beneficial. Because of the significant risks associated with drugs like metoclopramide, which is used to stimulate stomach muscles, doctors typically reserve this option for the most severe cases.

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Pacemakers can greatly increase the life expectancy of patients with congenital heart defects.

Surgical solutions for these disorders depend on the nature of the symptoms the patient is experiencing. Some patients with gastroparesis may be candidates for stomach clamps or gastric bypass surgery. If the disorder affects heart rate or rhythm, a pacemaker may need to be implanted to regulate heart functions.

Although many patients with vagus nerve disorders require little or no treatment, the disorders can pose a significant risk. For example, some people may have a vagus nerve disorder where the brain never receives a signal notifying them that the individual is hungry and needs to eat. Without a hunger signal, the patient could literally starve to death; although this almost never happens, the patient’s nutrition can be adversely affected.

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