Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a type of less-invasive surgery that involves electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve through a vagus nerve stimulation device.

The vagus nerve is the most complex cranial nerve. The 12 cranial nerves in the body send signals from the brain to other areas of the body, such as the head, neck, and torso. The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves, extending from the brainstem to the abdomen. The vagus nerve transmits information from the surface of the brain to tissues and organs elsewhere in the body and vice versa.

Why is vagus nerve stimulation needed?

Children with seizures that cannot be controlled with medication may find vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) helpful, as Vagus nerve stimulation has been used to reduce the frequency of seizures in people who haven’t achieved control with medications. This procedure can reduce seizures in about one-third of patients.

Learn more about epilepsy surgery.

How does the vagus nerve stimulation device work?

The vagus nerve simulator device is sometimes called a “pacemaker for the brain.” The VNS device sends regular to mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve. It is about the size of a silver dollar and is implanted while your child is under general anesthesia. The surgeon first makes an incision along the outer side of the chest on the left side, and the device is implanted under the skin. Then a second incision is made in the lower neck, along a crease of skin, and the wire from the stimulator is wound around the vagus nerve, which travels to the brain. The brain itself is not involved in the surgery.

The strength and the frequency of the device’s impulses will depend on the child’s needs and tolerance. The patient does not usually feel the impulses. If the device needs to be reprogrammed at any time, this can be done in our epilepsy clinic.

Your child is also given a small magnet that can be held near the device to activate it if they feel a seizure coming on. In some cases, this will stop a seizure if used shortly after onset of the seizure.

Vagus nerve stimulation side effects and risks

There are some side effects that may occur with the use of VNS. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Hoarseness
  • Pain or discomfort in the throat
  • Change in voice

If necessary, the implant can be removed. However, the wire around the vagus nerve is permanent.

Vagus nerve stimulation is safe surgical option. VNS does pose some risk, both from the surgery to implant the device and from the brain stimulation. These surgical complications, however, are rare and similar to the risk of having other type of surgery.

Talk with your child’s doctor to see if VNS is an option for seizure management.

Epilepsy Program at CHOC

Our epilepsy team was among the first to perform minimally invasive vagus nerve stimulation. Our Comprehensive Epilepsy Program treats the complete child, from managing seizures to helping to support families with mental and emotional needs of their children experiencing seizures. If you choose CHOC to perform your child’s VNS, you will meet with a pediatric specialist who will help you to form a personalized treatment plan. Contact us today to schedule an appointment by calling 714-509-4765.

Learn more about CHOC’s Epilepsy Program