Everything you need to know about Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)

17th April 2018

There are a variety of treatments for epilepsy, the effectiveness of each one varies from person to person. Many people with epilepsy are able to control their seizures using conventional medication, however, for others it may not be possible. When this happens it may become necessary to seek complementary forms of treatment, one of which is VNS.

What is VNS?

VNS is a treatment for epilepsy that uses a pulse generator to stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus is a pair of nerves that run from the brain and carry the electrical impulses that instruct the body what to do.

The pulse generator is attached directly to the left nerve and surgically inserted within the chest. The generator sends regular, mild electrical stimulations with the aim of calming the irregular brain activity that causes seizures.

The battery that can last up to 10 years and can be set at varied strengths and frequencies. Once implanted the device will often be activated on a low setting within the first 4 weeks and slowly increased until the right strength and frequency is found.

How effective is VNS?

The effectiveness of VNS, like many epilepsy treatments, varies from person to person. It’s unlikely to completely stop them and should not be considered as a potential cure for epilepsy. Instead, it is hoped that through VNS it will reduce the number, length, severity and recovery time of seizures in people with epilepsy. In some people it might reduce the frequency greatly, whilst in others the effects could be much more subtle and only slightly reduce seizure activity. It is also possible that VNS will have no effect at all in some people.

Some people with epilepsy may experience a simple partial seizure, otherwise known as a warning or an aura, that lets them know a seizure is occurring that may develop into a complex partial or generalised seizure. In this case the user can swipe a specialised magnet over the pulse stimulator to increase the pulse strength temporarily. This can often increase the effectiveness and sometimes stop the seizure from developing into a complex partial or generalized.

Can I be considered for VNS?

VNS will usually only be considered for people with epilepsy who have been unable to control their seizures with medication and are not considered suitable for brain surgery. If you fall into this category then your neurologist or specialist epilepsy nurse may refer you for VNS assessment, but it’s usually considered as one of the last options once other treatments have failed.

Are there any side effects?

Like most treatments, there is the potential for side effects. These may include:

  • Throat discomfort
  • A cough
  • Swallowing difficulty
  • A hoarse voice and throat

Often these side effects will subside over time, if they are experienced at all. In fact, many people have reported positive effects to the treatment, such as an improvement in mood, memory and alertness and even a reduction in depression.

National Epilepsy Training can help

At National Epilepsy Training, we provide a wide range of training and care service aimed at helping people with epilepsy. Get in touch to find out how we can help you. Call us on 01706 373075 or email admin@nationalepilepsytraining.co.uk.