What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation or VNS?


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When you suffer from epilepsy, danger lurks all around, in the form of furniture, cars, rocks - even water! That’s because the onset of a seizure means the possibility of a fall, serious injury - or worse. Although there are many medications used to help control seizures few epileptics can say they are completely seizure-free.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation, or VNS, is a relatively new way to control seizures that offers fabulous side effects, for some. The VNS procedure places a thin wire on the Vagus Nerve, in the neck, with power coming from a generator, usually installed in the underarm area. Very low electrical impulses then travel through the wire, stimulating the Vagus Nerve and helping to prevent seizures.

After the surgery, and allowing a few days to heal, the patient’s physician will then control the amount - and frequency - of the electrical current, through a machine at his office. The device is usually set at a low frequency, then progressively raised over several weeks, until the perfect setting is achieved for that particular person. Obviously, epileptics with frequent, vicious attacks will likely need a higher current and frequency than those with infrequent seizures.

The surgery is often done as an outpatient with the VNS recipient feeling much better within a couple of days. During the surgery, the generator, which usually lasts 6 to10 years before needing replaced, is inserted just under the skin. Rather than stitches, the surgeon is most likely to opt for a less scarring method of closing the incision. New adhesives allow cuts to simply be “super-glued”, making the incision virtually invisible upon healing.

A second incision is made in the front left part of the neck. Talented surgeons place the cut along a natural crease in the neck, making it, too, virtually invisible. The wire is inserted into the neck along the Vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the neck, thorax and abdomen. Surgeons often repair the incision using sticky tape that covers the wound long enough for it to heal.

The Vagus Nerve Stimulation doesn’t guarantee that the patient will have no more seizures, but it’s scientifically proven to reduce the frequency and length of the seizures. Should a seizure occur, additional current can be given via a magnet, worn on the caretaker’s wrist or carried in the pocket. Although it’s important to keep the magnet away from electronic devices, it can be held to the epileptic’s throat - in the area of the Vagus nerve - and the patient will often snap out of the seizure within seconds.

There can be a couple of side effects while the current and frequency are being adjusted over a period of time, including sore throat, tickling in the throat, coughing, shortness of breath, gagging or choking, and even a change in the sound of the recipient’s voice. The patient is able to feel the device kick on and off, and that can be aggravating to some, but usually the wearer becomes accustomed to the sensation within a few days.

The VNS surgery is known to help prevent seizures, and/or their severity, but it also has some pleasant side effects for some. Speaking louder than normal, and being extremely repetitive, are characteristics found in many special needs kids and adults. The VNS procedure can lessen these annoying habits in some patients. Some caretakers also report less tantrums by special needs children and adults who wear the device. Mood swings and memory are known to improve and most patients can eventually discontinue seizure medications. Doctors are also using the VNS surgery to help some people with depression.

The entire procedure, from check-in to check-out, takes about 4 hours, but should the patient be vomiting, or suffer a seizure while in-house, the doctor could decide to keep the patient overnight for observation.

The generator, located in the underarm area, can be felt, and can even leave a slight bulge, but clothing well covers the bulge and makes it impossible to notice. The incision in the neck will be red and slightly swollen, but swelling will subside after a couple of days. Medical applications can now treat the scar, too, and make it much less visible.

One thing you need to know after having the device installed: you must contact your doctor before having any new medical treatment, including X-rays, dental work or any type of surgery. Talk to your doctor to see if you or a loved one might benefit from the VNS surgery. Life doesn’t have to be a huge struggle simply because of epilepsy, thanks to this helpful procedure.

submitted by Emma S.