Your body is a wonderland of muscles, organs, tissues, cells, and nerves. While most of us get the gist of body parts like hearts and lungs, what’s the deal with all those nerves?
Nerves are more than just a source of pain (we see you sciatica 😎). They help your senses enjoy your fave playlist and even help your organs function. Your vagus nerve is one of those uber-important nerves your bod needs to keep things business as usual.
OK, but what happens if this nerve goes AWOL? We’ve got the answers to all your vagus nerve Q’s.
Your vagus nerve is technically one of 12 cranial nerves. These come in pairs and connect your brain to other body parts like your head, neck, and chest.
Some cranial nerves deal with sensory functions and send your brain the deets on things like sights, smells, sounds, and tastes. Other cranial nerves have motor functions, controlling some of your muscle movements and the way certain glands function.
Cranial nerves like your vagus nerve are on double duty, controlling both sensory and motor functions as it runs from your brain down to your gut.
Your hardworking vagus nerve is your 10th cranial nerve. Because cranial nerves are classified using Roman numerals, your vagus nerve is also known as “cranial nerve X (CN X).” (The more you know 💫.)
“Vagus” means wandering in Latin, meaning this nerve doesn’t simply run in a straight line from your brain stem to your colon.
Because your vagus nerve has both sensory and motor functions, it’s got quite the job to do.
Your vagus nerve is responsible for motor functions like stimulating:
- muscles in your heart to help lower your resting heart rate
- involuntary contractions in your digestive tract that allow food to move through
- muscles in your larynx, pharynx, and soft palate (all parts of your throat)
Your vagus nerve’s sensory functions can be broken down into two components:
- Somatic components: sensations felt in your muscles or on your skin
- Visceral components: sensations felt in your bod’s organs
Its sensory functions include:
- providing visceral sensation info for most of your digestive tract, and for your heart, trachea, lungs, esophagus, and larynx
- delivering somatic sensation info to the external part of your ear canal, the area behind your ear, and certain areas of your throat
- sending info from your gut to your brain when you’re under stress that signals your body to recover (that “gut feeling” linked to fear and anxiety)
- playing a small part in experiencing taste at the root of your tongue 👅.
Conditions like diabetes or stomach or small intestine surgery can damage yourvagus nerve. Because it’s so long and affects so many areas of your body, symptoms may depend on what part of your nerve is damaged.
Symptoms of vagus nerve damage include:
- loss of gag reflex
- ear pain
- difficulty drinking
- unusual heart rate
- nausea or vomiting
- bloating or pain in your abdomen
- trouble speaking
- voice becoming hoarse or wheezy
- losing your voice
- decreased stomach acid production
Gastroparesis may sound like a Harry Potter spell, but it’s actually a condition that affects the involuntary contractions of your digestive system. This prevents your stomach from emptying properly.
This condition can be caused by nerve damage or a vagotomy — a procedure where all or part of your vagus nerve is removed.
Gastroparesis symptoms include:
- acid reflux
- vomiting undigested food hours after you eat
- pain or bloating in your abdomen
- blood sugar fluctuations
- loss of appetite
- feeling full right after starting to eat
- unexplained weight loss
Stress in all it’s not-so-glorious forms can take a toll on your body. Your vagus nerve is no exception — especially since it controls stimulation to your heart muscles that keep your heart rate slow and steady.
Stress triggers that can lead to vasovagal syncope include:
- standing for long periods of time
- straining (including when you’re trying to poop really hard)
- exposure to extreme heat
- intense fear of bodily harm
- seeing blood or having blood drawn
Your doc may perform a simple test on your gag reflex to make sure your vagus nerve is in working order.
To do this, they’ll likely tickle both sides of the back of your throat with a cotton swab. This should cause you to gag.
If it doesn’t, there may be an issue with your vagus nerve.
In some cases, your vagus nerve needs some help if it’s damaged. That’s where vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) comes in.
With VNS, a small device that uses electrical impulses to stimulate your nerve is placed under your skin, usually in your chest area. A wire connects the device to your vagus nerve.
This device is usually programmed by a neurologist, but some folks are given a magnet that allows them to control it themselves. When it’s activated, the device can send signals from your vagus nerve to your brain stem. These signals are then transmitted to your brain.
Vagus nerve stimulation is sometimes used to treat epilepsy and depression cases that aren’t responding to other treatments. But it may also work for other conditions. While more research is needed, VNS may also help treat conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or cluster headaches.
Your vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerve pairs in your body. It’s the longest of these nerves, running from your brain stem to your gut.
Your vagus nerve has both sensory and motor functions, meaning it stimulates certain sensations as well as controls certain muscle activity. This is especially important to vital body parts like your heart, ears, throat, and digestive system.