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Vagus Nerve Stimulation After Unsuccessful Epilepsy Treatment

little boy in hospital being examined by the doctor

Vagus Nerve Stimulation, or VNS, is an implantable device, much like a pacemaker, used to deliver electrical pulses from the vagal nerve to the brain. VNS commonly treats neurological conditions like epilepsy in conjunction with anti-epileptic drugs. Let’s find out how vagus nerve stimulation after unsuccessful epilepsy treatment works.

What Is a Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerves are a pair of nerves that originate in the brain and run throughout the body carrying messages. The vagus nerve influences several body functions including digestion, heart rate, and body temperature. The United States FDA has approved VNS as an extra or add-on therapy for adults and children four years and older. It is approved to treat seizures that do not respond to seizure medications (at least 2). This is known as drug resistant epilepsy or refractory epilepsy. It is also approved to treat depression.

How Vagus Nerve Stimulation Helps During A Seizure

The goal of VNS is to reduce the number, length, and severity of seizures. It can minimize abnormal electrical brain activity that leads to seizures, but it may be slow to work. For some patients the seizures become less frequent, for some the intensity or length may be reduced, and others may see no effect. It can also affect recovery time after a seizure.

The implantable device delivers electrical pulses from the vagus nerve to the brain. It has a stimulator or pulse generator connected inside the body to the left vagus nerve in the neck. It sends regulated mild electrical stimulation through the vagus nerve to help calm the brain activity causing the seizure. It is designed to alter how brain cells work by delivering electrical stimulation to certain areas involved with seizures.

Scientists don’t know how VNS works, but it’s likely:

  • It raises levels of some brain substances important in controlling seizures.
  • It increases blood flow to key brain areas.
  • It changes EEG (electroencephalogram) patterns during a seizure.

It is known that 8 out of 10 people with epilepsy have an increase in their heart rate prior to a seizure. Newer VNS devices can pick up an increase in heart rate which triggers an extra burst of stimulation.

When to Consider VNS for Your Child

Every year 10,000 or more children are diagnosed with drug-resistant epilepsy. This impacts their memory long term and can increase visits to the ER, hospitalizations, and even death. Treating children aged four and above with VNS therapy has proven safe and effective. It has helped more than 35K children worldwide have fewer seizures, plus shorter and less severe episodes.

If your child has tried two or more medications with no improvement, ask your provider at Pediatric Neurosurgery Group if VNS therapy is right for them.

Are There Negative Side Effects of VNS Therapy?

VNS therapy is safe for most people, but some risks and side effects are possible.

Most negative side effects are temporary, and they include hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath, and coughing. They usually occur only during the time the nerve is being stimulated, and eventually are reduced.

If side effects become bothersome, your provider at Pediatric Neurosurgery Group can adjust the settings until a comfort level is reached.

Implanting the device during surgery can have its own set of side effects like infection, pain, and breathing problems. 

If your child has tried two or more epilepsy drugs with no improvement, contact Pediatric Neurosurgery Group at (313) 833-4490 to schedule a consultation at our pediatric neurosurgery clinic in Detroit.

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