Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)

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Vagus nerve stimulation is treatment used for people with poorly controlled epilepsy, most often used when medications haven’t worked. It is a procedure that involves implantation of a pace-maker-like device that stimulates the vagus nerve with electrical impulses.

There’s one vagus nerve on each side of your body, running from the base of your brain, down your neck to your chest and abdomen. The vagus nerve is responsible for control of muscles for swallowing, coughing and voice and feedback from the heart, lung, stomach and upper bowel to the brain. The left vagus nerve mostly receives input from the body to the brain, with very few heart connections, making the left vagus nerve most suitable for this procedure.

What is VNS?

VNS Therapy is mild intermittent electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve. In some people with epilepsy this can reduce the frequency and intensity of seizures.

VNS Therapy is for use as an add-on therapy to help reduce the number of seizures in people whose epilepsy is predominantly focal seizures or generalised seizures that are unable to be controlled with antiepileptic medications.

How does it work?

A pacemaker like generator is implanted in the chest and a lead is attached to the vagus nerve, which delivers electrical impulses to this nerve at regular intervals.  If people get a warning or aura of an impending seizure, they can wave a magnet over the pacemaker to activate the electrical stimulus, which may prevent or reduce the intensity of the seizure.

What have studies shown?

Approximately one third people have good improvement in seizure control with the number of seizures reducing by at least 50%, and one third of people experience a seizure reduction between 30 and 50%.  Less than 5% of people who become seizure free and up to 25% of people do not experience any positive effect of VNS at all (Seizure 2011).

Long-term follow-up studies show seizure control improves over time.

Are there other benefits?

Many people have reported benefits other than a reduction in seizure frequency. These benefits include:

  • an improvement in alertness, memory, energy levels
  • improvements in mood. VNS is also used to treat depression
  • Some people may be able to reduce the medications they take
  • Safety risks associated with seizures, including SUDEP, are reduced as well.

What are the side effects?

VNS may cause side effects in some people. The most common include:

  • Changes in voice
  • Hoarseness or throat discomfort
  • Coughing
  • Tingling or pain in the throat or neck

These effects are generally related to the stimulation settings and diminish over time or after a change in the stimulation settings.

Less common side effects include:

  • Shortness of breath, reduced exercise tolerance
  • Difficulty sleeping, snoring and apnoea during sleep
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain or infection where the device was implanted through the skin

As with any surgery, there is a small risk of infection and bleeding.

Having a VNS implanted does not mean medications will be stopped. It is usually used in conjunction with medications.

If you would like to know more speak to your specialist.

Vagus nerve stimulation is not for everyone and you should check with your doctor about the suitability of this procedure for you.

For more information go to:

What’s it like?  (includes video)

VNS