A simple nerve in our bodies may be the key to recovery from a traumatic brain injury.
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that stem from the brain. The term “vagus” comes from the Latin word for “wandering” because it goes from the brain to the organs in the neck, chest, abdomen, digestive, and detoxification systems in our bodies.
What does the vagus nerve do?
It is important because it allows the brain to monitor and send/receive information on the body’s key functionalities. It deals with mainly sensory activities and motor functions within the body and serves four key roles:
- Sensory: from the throat, heart, lungs, and abdomen
- Special Sensory: provides taste sensation behind the tongue
- Motor: Provides movement functions for the muscles in the neck that control swallowing and speech
- Parasympathetic: Controls the functions of the digestive tract, respiratory system, and heart rate functions (Seymour, 2017)
The vagus nerve also plays a part in our balance, the nervous system, relaxation, fear management (stress, anxiety, fear), inflammation, and more. The bottom line is, when the nerve is working well, our bodies are in their optimal state. In contrast, when the nerve isn’t working well, it poses a risk to the body’s normal practices and healing (Habib, 2020). Our nervous system is crucial for voluntary and involuntary functions, and for TBI survivors, a dysfunction of the vagus nerve can inhibit recovery and care.
Clinical Trials and the Vagus Nerve
Studies have been proposed to examine what role the vagus nerve plays in TBI recovery.
Because TBI symptoms such as PTSD, chronic pain, syncope, and chronic fatigue syndrome often indicate an issue with the vagus nerve, it is the key to understand the recovery process (Hope After Brain Injury). Through the clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of vagus nerve stimulation for epilepsy in 1997 and depression in 2005 (Seymour, 2017). Vagus nerve stimulation has addressed the recovery and management of a variety of conditions including refractory epilepsy, depression, rapid cycling bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease. Who’s to say it can’t work for TBI patients?
Why is the vagus nerve important for TBI survivors?
For people with traumatic brain juries, early detection of vagus nerve dysfunction is of utmost importance.
In a 2014 study of vagus nerve stimulation in rabbits who had experienced traumatic brain injuries, results showed that vagus nerve stimulation reduced brain swelling. Likewise, a 2007 study of brain swelling as a result of TBIs found that vagus nerve stimulation initiated either 2 hours or 24 hours following a traumatic brain injury enhances the motor and cognitive function in rats in the weeks following brain injury.
There is countless research that supports the vagus nerve’s potential role in TBI recovery if employed in the correct ways. It may be vital to preventing long-term issues and foster healing for the brain. Dr. Navaz Habib, a Doctor of Chiropractic Functional Medicine, recommends three methods to stimulate the vagus nerve: deep breathing, cold showers, and gargling. Register for our dashboard here and our newsletter here, and get one step closer to managing your condition by having a tangible tracking platform to share with your doctors and other practitioners. Ask your provider about your vagus nerve today!