The vagus nerve is one of the largest nerve systems in the body. The name vagus is Latin for "wandering," which describes the long and complicated path this nerve takes through the body and all of the different systems it comes in contact with. In some cases, this nerve is linked to medical conditions such as low blood pressure, and in other cases, doctors will stimulate this nerve to help treat disorders such as epilepsy.
The vagus nerve is actually two cranial nerves that extend from the brain stem and connect down to the viscera. Sometimes this nerve is referred to as cranial nerve X, the 10th cranial nerve or the wandering nerve. These nerves are used to send a variety of signals throughout the body, but will also transfer signals back to the brain. The vagus nerve is also known for wandering through the body, weaving through the abdomen and branching into other nerves that extend through the limbs and organs.
The vagus nerve is used to regulate a variety of body functions including the heartbeat and the muscle movement necessary to keep you breathing. This nerve also regulates the chemical levels in the digestive system so that the intestines can process food and keep track of what types of nutrients are being gained from the food that is taken in.
Vagus nerve disorders are basically broken down into two categories. There are the disorders that are caused by a nerve that is underactive or not functioning properly and there are those that are caused by your vagus nerve overacting to the stimuli it receives.
An underactive vagus nerve can lead to a condition called gasteroparesis. This condition leads to nausea, heartburn, stomach pains, spasms in the stomach and weight loss due to the digestive system having too little of the chemicals it needs to break down food. An underactive vagus nerve can also lead to a dropping heart rate. Pacemakers can be used to help maintain a heart rate that is healthy to help prevent the heart rate from dropping to an unsafe level and causing dangerous conditions such as coma.
Overactive vagus nerves can cause frequent fainting. On its own, this is not particularly dangerous, but this can lead to injuries when a person falls due to the immediate loss of consciousness.
Symptoms. Symptoms of a vagus nerve disorder will vary based on whether or not the nerve is under or over reacting to stimuli. One of the most common side effects of this disorder is pain, which will feel very similar to a pinched nerve. This pain may also be coupled by muscle cramps when you move or perform action such as picking up objects. In severe cases this pain can make it difficult to walk properly. You may also have trouble swallowing because the vagus nerve also helps to control the muscles that allow for the intake of food. You may also notice that your gag reflex is no longer as active when the vagus nerve is damage. You may also notice that your voice is altered due to the muscles in the throat reacting differently.
In addition to the organ damage or difficulties that accompany a damaged vagus nerve, there are other side effects that may be a sign that your vagus nerve is not working properly. You may be more susceptible to developing peptic ulcers because the body is producing more stomach acid than it should. You may also begin to develop constipation because your intestines are not regulating water intake the way they should. Patients who are dealing with an abnormal vagus nerve may have difficulty controlling their urine and may suffer from urinary incontinence.
Consult doctors. If you believe that your vagus nerve is not reacting to stimuli the way it should, then your first step should be to consult your regular doctor. They can recommend you to a nerve specialist that will be able to determine whether or not you are suffering from a nerve disorder.
Undergo nerve therapy. If it is determined that your vagus nerve is not functioning properly, then you will need to undergo nerve therapy. Therapy typically includes vagus nerve stimulation. A device will be attached to the nerve to send electric pulses to the nerve to help regulate the signals sent by the nerve. This device functions very similarly to a pacemaker in the heart.
Medical treatment. In addition to treating the nerve, those who are suffering from this disorder will need to seek medical treatment to help regulate the side effects that this condition has caused on the body. A traditional pacemaker may be needed to help ensure that the heart beats regularly and medication is needed to help make sure that your digestive system is regulated properly.