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Adrienne Dellwo

Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Fibromyalgia Treatment

By August 24, 2011

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Research Brief

New research published in the journal Pain Medicine suggests that a treatment called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) may be an effective fibromyalgia treatment.

In this small preliminary study, 11 people with fibromyalgia had a vagus nerve stimulator implanted for 3 months, and then went back for several follow-up assessments after the implant was removed. (Fourteen people actually began the study; two were unable to tolerate the treatment and dropped out, and one did not come back for follow-up assessment.)

When the 3 months of treatment ended, 5 people showed significant improvement in:

  • Pain
  • Overall wellness
  • Physical function

Two of those participants also no longer met the fibromyalgia diagnostic criteria of widespread pain and tenderness. Researchers said more participants reached this benchmark by the 11-month follow up, indicating that benefits may continue to grow after treatment has ended.

Side effects of VNS typically include coughing, hoarseness, problems swallowing, and tingling in the neck. In this study, researchers also reported dry mouth and fatigue. However, side effects generally occur only during stimulation and tend to diminish with continued treatment.

Researchers concluded that VNS may be a valuable addition to treatment for some people with fibromyalgia, but they point out that more research is needed to understand its role in the treatment regimen.

It's worth noting that treatment was successful for less than half of the participants 5 or 6 out of 14. Like most treatments, it does not appear to work for all of us.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

While it's generally referred to in the singular, we actually have 2 vagus nerves. They come from either side of the brain stem and run down into the chest and abdomen.

Their job is to help control muscles in the throat and larynx (voice box), regulate the heart rate and digestive system, and send information from the internal organs to the brain.

Dysfunction of the vagus nerve is suspected in both fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, especially in cases involving neurally mediated hypotension, which causes dizziness upon standing due to a sudden drop in blood pressure. However, researchers have not yet pinned down the exact role of the nerve in these conditions.

What we do know is that some people are especially susceptible to a problem called "vasovagal reflex." This can be triggered by pain, fear, sudden stress or digestive problems. It causes changes in blood pressure and heart rate that result in dizziness and possibly even loss of consciousness (called vasovagal syncope.)

VNS is sometimes used to treat epilepsy and treatment-resistant depression. Here's information on what the treatment involves, from About.com Depression Guide Nancy Schimelpfening:

Have you been diagnosed with any kind of vagus nerve-related problem? Have you had VNS treatment? Did it help? Leave your comments below!

Learn more or join the conversation!


Photo Getty Images

August 24, 2011 at 8:26 am
(1) Deborah Larkin says:

this is very interesting and I am going to bring this with me to my next doctor’s appointment for fibromyalgia. Thanks

August 25, 2011 at 2:13 pm
(2) Hilary says:

This is very interesting, thank you! My daughter got a VNS for her epilepsy this year, and as I researched it beforehand, I wondered about it being a possible treatment for depression and fibromyalgia–I have both. Very excited to see how this progresses in the medical realm.

August 25, 2011 at 2:24 pm
(3) Laura says:

I am 65 and have been disabled with CFS for 20 years. I have had vaso-vagal reactions every time my cervix was touched–eg. insertion of iud, injection during birth, etc, from age 24. I have severe orthostatic intolerance (pots, neually mediated hypotension) since I fell ill with CFS.

Maybe there are other treatments for the vagal nerves? I think this is a large part of my disability.
Thanks so much for your blog. I am a long-time fan.

August 26, 2011 at 10:02 pm
(4) Colleen says:

Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do. Look at alternative less invasive ways of treating this nerve. The right forms of massage, etc. Help tremendously. Even some focus of massage relating to the vagus nerve or surrounding muscles may be worth trying / looking into. I need to research the vagus nerve. But yeah, I have erratic blood pressure and it can really affect the way I function and my treatment plan constantly seems to switch because of it. e.g. food for differing blood pressure, activity level and types of activity, even my ability to have showers or perform self care seem to be affected by my blood pressure. Neat this has come up now because my heart has felt very very tired and I suspect it may be partly due to my blood pressure. Definitely worth a look.

August 26, 2011 at 4:30 pm
(5) Melissa says:

I have had vasavagal syncope caused by a drug called Lexapro which was being tried for the treatment of fibromyalgia. I only took one tablet and ended up in the hospital for 5 days as they did every test possible to “rule out ” cardiac cause. I have low blood pressure and am ultra sensitive to chemicals. I have been told to never take another SSRI because this was not the first ill response I’ve had to SSRI’s.

August 26, 2011 at 10:11 pm
(6) Col says:

Ditto when it comes to SSRI’s. Every single one and there’s been several attempts.

August 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm
(7) Colleen says:

This is interesting and makes quite a bit of sense in relation to my symptoms and illness but I’m not familiar with this at all. The irratic blood pressure, dizziness etc but didn’t realize this is what it was related to. I do realize I have all sorts or problems connected trigger points in my neck and shoulder muscles. Not fun. Constant struggle. I’m going to ask my doctor, etc about this and try to find out more info. Thanks.

August 27, 2011 at 2:08 am
(8) mary says:

Have the same problems with neck muscles and shoulders. Constant struggle too. Mid back up painful. TMJ seems to bring some of this and cranial pain. Not to sure I would try this. But those nerves seem to be affected. I have lots of pain in neck. Always pulling on where glands are on side of esophogus. Just so you know your not alone. Trying to figure out what to do for this. So uncomfortable. Cant sleep well cause of it. Where a mouthpiece to sleep. Its got to get better.. God speed… Mary

August 27, 2011 at 1:55 pm
(9) Colleen says:

Thanks so much for your comment. Yeah, I hear you. I have a mouth piece as well. It took me long while and a wise physio therapist at the pain clinic to figure out the neck and upper back trigger points was the cause of many things. I’ve had lower back problems and injury ever since I was 7 years old so just assumed this was the cause of many things. With referred pain it can be difficult to tell because my entire body aches 24 hrs. a day. Wasn’t until I started doing certain type of physo that it was obvious to me and connection made to my neck being a HUGE issue. Some physio for neck and upper back can cause almost instant migraines. This helped us see just how bad things were with my neck. It truly is the cause or a bit contributing factor in all sorts of things from constant sinus, gland, pain, etc issues. The list goes on and on. So between this and blood pressure alone vagus nerve is worth looking into.

August 26, 2011 at 8:07 pm
(10) Richard D. says:

Where do they place the implant? They are placing VG stimulation implant? There are stimulators for people with gastroparethis and they are studying it for weight loss but those go at the VG connection to the stomach.

I wonder about the guy who didn’t come back? Did he do self surgery and sell it on the black market? :)

I’d take anything that replaces a medication deep brain stim, etc.

August 26, 2011 at 8:08 pm
(11) Richard D. says:

Oh, great NOW I see the diagram. Sheesh.

August 27, 2011 at 1:56 pm
(12) Colleen says:

LOL, sounds like something I would do. brain fog…

August 27, 2011 at 3:11 am
(13) Laura Howe says:

Interesting that I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia the same time my vagus nerve was cut during a gastrectomy I had. This caused me to now have gastroparesis.

August 27, 2011 at 9:21 pm
(14) Renee Richardson says:

I just wonder what, if anything, the ins. companies will pay for this???

August 28, 2011 at 1:00 pm
(15) JudyP says:

I’ve had Vasal-vagal reflexes 5 times in my life (starting in my teens) and I can tell you where and when I was, and what I was doing. They are terrifying. The last time (a couple of years ago) I ended up in the ER, and that’s when I found out what it was. I was driving to work on the highway when it happened, and made my way to a store parking lot to call an ambulance. Luckily, I never actually pass out – just have the tunnel vision, and thrumming in the ears, and of course, the rush of blood to my legs. Last time I also hyperventilated with it, because I thought I was having a stroke. Interesting that this can be associated with FMS.

The ER doc said he once knew a M.A.S.H. doc in Vietnam who had one the first time they brought in wounded soldiers. I was just on my way to work… sheesh. [I guess middle schoolers can do that to you. ;-) ]

The ER nurse told me to get some Xanax for panic attacks. My primary doc said I had no signs of having had a panic attack. I haven’t had one since, but I have felt that lightheadedness and know to lie down when it starts.

August 28, 2011 at 2:14 pm
(16) Karen says:

I also have low blood pressure and have had several vasovagal episodes – one during a biopsy, one after surgery, one after throwing up all night with stomach flu. In the incident after surgery, I woke up with a nurse saying “Sorry I was slapping you, but we couldn’t wake you up.” I have no recollection of being slapped. Scary!
I also get very dizzy every time I get up.

August 28, 2011 at 4:00 pm
(17) edwards29 says:

I have irregular heartbeat – atrial fibrillation – I’m thinking due to the vagus nerve reflex. Also, very cold feet and some blacking out/fainting with illnesses, which was diagnosed as a vasovagal response. Have never been treated, ‘though it sounds interesting but a little scary with my A-fib. I have been diagnosed with both FM and CFS.

August 29, 2011 at 6:37 pm
(18) Marygrace says:

Something much less invasive and much more successful is Low Dose Naltrexone. I have been using it for a year and a half now and have 40% less pain. I no longer take medication – I was taking about 10 of them. I do still have to take my thyroid meds, but am off my antidepressants, and all other pain and sleeping meds.

You can find more info at LDNInfo.org or on Facebook, our page is Got Endorphins.

It is worth it to give it a try. If your doctor hasn’t heard of it or won’t rx it, there is information about how to get it on that site or on the yahoo groups. It is about $100.00 for a years supply if you make it yourself with 50 mg pills. (you only take between 3.0 – 4.5 mg per evening) And there are no side effects, except at start up and they are nothing like what most of the drugs do to you. I also lost a lot of weight, something I battled with all my life.

Give it a try. Lots of people on the forums and at yahoo groups to help if you want to learn more. Just do a search on yahoo groups and you will see all the groups that are on there about LDN.

Best wishes!

August 31, 2011 at 11:26 am
(19) Kim says:

First of all it is never mentioned as to the severity of the subjects Fibro. This drives me crazy because there are many levels. Some people have a mild case and can control their pain with asprin or advil some are so severe as myself that extreme narcotics barely help and have accompanying illnesses. I complain about this because many of us who suffer badly hear news like this and run for help. Yet your study says it only helped less than half. I can almost bet the half it did not help were medium to severe cases. I have more tests & try these methods that I find out later Only help mild cases. I wish they would state these facts in these studies. It would save many of us time , money & heartache. I know what works for some may not work for others but many times it matters how badly the person has FMS/CFS. Thank you

September 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm
(20) Frances says:

My son has a vagel vagus disorder and died 7 times in the hospital before they put in a pacemaker to shock him before his blood pressure bottomed out. He has been fine since this happened. The doctors told us that it runs in families but we don’t know of anyone else that has it. I have had fibromyalgia for 20+ years and one of my sisters was diagnosed a year ago. It looks like my daughter may have fibromyalgia as well but has not been diagnosed. This is very interesting and I will watch for what further studies show.

September 25, 2011 at 2:53 pm
(21) Sarah says:

I’m slow in actually getting to this post, but it is so interesting. I had some serious vasovagal syncope issues resulting from complications from back surgery several years ago. I ended up in the cardiac ICU for 3 days and progressive care for another 2 because my heart actually stopped for 45 seconds at one point (I also had several issues at the same time with arrhythmia without it actually stopping).

Interestingly, that event is considered the beginning of my fibromyalgia. Previously, we had thought it was the trauma and stress of the situation, but I’m now wondering if it isn’t actually the vagus nerve issues that led my FM problems. Seems rather coincidental otherwise… Looks like it’s time for me to do some more research!

January 7, 2012 at 11:35 am
(22) Keith Jemison-Mills says:

Thanks everyone, I found your comments very enlightening. I have had Fibro for many years, but after the removal of a defunct Kidney which was causing extra high blood pressure, I now find I am consistently getting blood pressure readings of 78/45 and as low as 74/35. I get scared when that happens because of the fear of ending up with no blood pressure at all.. I can’t conclude it’s definitely that till I have a conversation with my health care professional next week, but I will discuss it with him as soon as I can. It makes allot of sense, but the next question would be, how on earth do you treat it?
Keith, Jemison-Mills

January 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm
(23) mary says:

for all of you who are thinking about this procedure- I was part of a study in 2007- had the implant (VNS) and chose to have it removed one year later. Do your research and speak in detail with those who have had the procedure. Sadly it was yet another dead end for me.

October 26, 2012 at 8:10 pm
(24) Pamela says:

Boy this has been an eye opener. I would like to hear more from the participant in the study, Mary. I would like more detail’s. My Fibro started after 2 failed shoulder surgeries that started growing scar tissue that goes up into my neck and around the whole blade. I have never passed out though. Desperate now. I am affected by the weather so bad that I need to move leaving my husband. We can’t sell our home and I am out of options. I am so sad. Nobody here knows how to treat Fibro except for the FDA approved meds which I can’t tolerate or don’t help.

June 4, 2013 at 7:01 pm
(25) jenn says:

I was one of the 14 implanted, your information is NOT EXACTLY right, before you publish an informational piece like this I would suggest further research…The Study started in 2007, I just last week had mine taken out due to it damaging my vagal nerve and causing Gastroparisis..It was implanted for 3 months shy of 6 years..Although it did work great in the beginning after the 3rd year I started having issues and with the next 2 3/4 years of back n forth to all different specialists they figured out it was the device that was causing these issues! I would recommend a complete diet change for fibro people, No gluten, dairy and most of all no SUGAR! No processed, canned food no MSG No sulfites act. eat old style like they did many years ago, if it says DEIT stay away..no artificial sweeteners ever! Good Luck to any new fibro peeps!

November 25, 2013 at 7:56 pm
(26) Cathy brown says:

Considering vagus nerve implant as desperate for relief and increased functioning. Diagnosed with FMS 13 years ago and also have autonomic nervous system dysfunction due to blood pressure problems etc. need to learn more about trial results. Know of any further trials and results?

January 29, 2014 at 3:07 pm
(27) Alberto Bolonkib says:

The supreme grand secret of the cartel of secret lodges is that enough vagal stimulation causes all the “magical” phenomena that gives high degree lodge members the confidence of having “magical” mastery. But, put in modern medical terms, “Vagal stimulation is as effective as LSD”. This is done by vagal stimulation spreading to the brain where it awakens more than the normal 10% brain use by overriding the inhibitory neurons. The neurotransmitter or these inhibitory neurons is seratonin, which LSD blocks and thereby awakens more than 10% brain use. Psychiatry professionally (secretly) calls more than 10% brain use “psychosis”. Back when “psychosis” was a committable offence twenty-five million Americans were committed to, and imprisoned in, the mental hospital gulags. That was one fourth of the American population. They attempted to erase their memories of this secret by inflicting electric shock treatments. This was actually done to reserve the supreme grand secret exclusively for the privileged elite, high degree lodge members. Now they have been trying to eliminate our Constitution in order to exterminate everyone who know too much, the concentration camps have been built; and now, with a Muslim in power, even only two weeks of an attempted Islamic American government will enable them to exterminate everyone who knows too much, which now includes you.

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