Stimulation of our biggest nerves
Neuropathic pain presents itself in a variety of ways making it hard to pinpoint its source. As our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) integrates with our central nervous system (CNS), there are methods that help these two systems communicate, or transition between each other, more efficiently alleviating the two resulting in pain relief. Relief truly comes from the ability of being able to have healthy transitions between a rest/digest (parasympathetic) to fight or flight (sympathetic) mechanisms. The primary, root nerve of the PNS is called the Vagus nerve. It is in fact actually two nerves that control our autonomic nervous system and sends signals for key functions like swallowing, and to key organs like the heart.
Neuropathy sufferers know individuals with neuropathy experience symptoms of numbness, burning pain or in some cases paralysis, as well as brain fog. However, many of us also have autonomic nervous system issues. It was originally thought that the PNS was completely autonomous and uncontrollable by our own abilities, but studies are emerging showing the contrary. The integration of the PNS and CNS means what benefits one can often benefit the other.
With new leaders like Wim Hof reviving practices like ancient Tibetan tummo breathing protocols. People are achieving noticeable results through non-intrusive ways of controlling the PNS – individuals indicate they are realizing benefits to motor and cognitive function through these practices. Note, it is important to find proper training to learn these practices correctly. Both the Wim Hof Method and tummo breathing are techniques where a meditator can, for example, raise their body temperature (a component of the parasympathetic system) through breathing and visualization.6 There are well known invasive procedures using implants (pacemaker like devices) that can stimulate the same responses. While I don’t believe Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is currently medically approved for use for neuropathy there are clinical studies underway. Also, there is evidence Peripheral Nerve Stimulation (PNSM) improves pain.8 This is all very nice, but very few are candidates for this kind of intervention. To be a candidate, one normally has had long standing chronic pain and has tried and had little success with multiple treatments.9 However, what is interesting is that there are ways emerging to, at least in part, stimulate the Vagus nerve voluntarily oneself, potentially providing at least some of the same benefits.
What is Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is one of twelve cranial nerves emerging from the brain and is the longest cranial nerve in our body. Vagus in Latin translates to ‘wanderer’ which can speak to the far-reaching implications throughout the body. It plays an important role in almost every organ system of the body. It is a mixed nerve as it contains both sensory and motor fibers, which means it carries motor signals to all the organs it innervates and carries sensory information from these organs back to the central nervous system. The effects of “vagal tone” are significant as this nerve innervates many of our organs (heart, pancreas, liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs, stomach, and intestines) as well as distributing throughout our entire body, unlike any other cranial nerve. Vagal tone is a descriptor for the process where your heart rate is tied to your breathing and has influence over the autonomic and/or parasympathetic systems.
Vagus Nerve Impact
Imagine the effect on your entire body if you could stimulate your vagus nerve you may be able to have an impact on organs like your heart, and gut. By improving vagal tone, you may improve your daily life and relieve pain. And on the contrary if the vagus nerve is not in optimal shape, you may be more prone to sickness and a weaker immune system.2
Good vagal health allows access to parts of the brain for creativity, decision making, and higher cognition. On the other hand, if not healthy then we may have less of an ability to access parts of the brain that manages fight or flight response and be more prone to things like Vagal Nerve Fainting where an overload of the nerve can cause speech to come out garbled followed by a loss of consciousness. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system that controls how well the connected organs function; and, if we are able to modulate well between the rest/digest and fight/flight response mechanisms we may reduce holistic nervous strain. At the CNA we have often discussed the three things’ nerves need to be their healthiest are oxygen, nutrition and stimulation. The two vagal nerves being our biggest and two of the most important nerves, it makes sense to focus on their health where we can. Having healthy vagal tone results in calm and peaceful mind and positive mood, good digestion, health pulse rate and blood pressure and as an added benefit this balance also can alleviate migraines, and daily headaches. Published experience shows that neuropathic pain responds to PNSM in many patients, as seen using implantable devices.1
Stimulation of the Vagus Nerve
There are various ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and some methods have been practiced for many years in eastern medicine. There is known to be the use of eel or jelly fish electricity to promote healing of injuries or illnesses. This has led to the creation of technology like the implants mentioned earlier which are placed in the chest wall to internally send electric impulses to the vagus nerve. Although, there are known and effective natural ways to replicate the electrical current provided by implants.
The interesting thing about the vagus nerve is there are natural ways to stimulate it becoming more popular with practices resurfacing such as the techniques mentioned earlier: ancient tummo style breathing and the Wim Hof Method.
Natural ways of stimulation include diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, exercising, cold water exposure, and gargling. Exposure to cold forces the body to adjust to the cold which declines sympathetic activity and increases parasympathetic activity. Even the simple act of splashing cold water on your face has an effect. Deep breathing exercises such as tummo style breathing activates specific neurons that detect blood pressure.5 These neurons communicate to the vagus nerve that blood pressure is increasing, and in turn responds by lowering your heart rate.5 Meditation brings the body into a state of calm, signaling to the vagus nerve that there is no need for a fight or flight response resulting in increasing vagal tone.5
Stimulating the vagus nerve can be done in multiple ways. Many people with neuropathy already understand the benefits of some of these practices and use them. For those of us who don’t hopefully this gives a reason to consider learning more. If practiced consistently these good habits may enhance many physical and mental aspects of life.
- Slavin, K.V. Peripheral nerve stimulation for neuropathic pain. Neurotherapeutics 5, 100–106 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nurt.2007.11.005
- Dr. Jack Feldman: Breathing for Mental & Physical Health & Performance | Huberman Lab Podcast #54 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLgKkG44MGo
- Andrew Huberman: How stress affects the mind — and how to relieve it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQ7B3bxGVjs
- What Is The Vagus Nerve? | Vagus Nerve Explained | Brain, Mind Body Connect https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp67EQhNfj8&ab_channel=TheArtofLiving
- Vagus Nerve Stimulation – Wim Hof Method https://www.wimhofmethod.com/vagus-nerve-stimulation
- Neurocognitive and Somatic Components of Temperature Increases during g-Tummo Meditation: Legend and Reality https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612090/
- NIH ClinicalTrials.gov Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Treating Adults with Severe Fibromyalga https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00294281
- Multimodal therapeutic assessment of peripheral nerve stimulation in neuropathic pain: Five case reports with a 20-year follow-up https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1090380110001485
- Practical Pain Management; Am I a Candidate for Peripheral Nerve Stimulation (PNS)? https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/patient/peripheral-nerve-stimulation-pns-chronic-pain-relief