The human body is a fascinating system with an intricate network of nerves and connective tissues that attach every organ of the body to each other. The nervous system is amongst the vital body systems, which relays information from the brain to all parts of the body. Vagus nerve is one of the vital cranial nerves in the body which performs a number of functions. Sometimes, due to an illness or some health condition, the nerve tends to get damaged. This can result in nerve disorders, which can take a serious turn if medical intervention is not sought.
What is a Vagus Nerve
There are twelve pairs of cranial nerves present in the human body system. The tenth pair of cranial nerves is known as vagus nerve. This nerve is also known as the wandering nerve, (Vagus in Latin means 'roaming' or 'wandering'), since it travels from the medulla of the brain till the viscera (or abdomen) in a zigzag manner.
The vagus nerve has several branches which connect the ears, larynx (or voice box), heart, lungs and the stomach. One of the main functions is to transmit information regarding the working of the organs to the brain. It also governs reflex responses of the organs. Other functions include regulation of the heartbeat, breathing, controlling movements (or contractions) of the muscles, and transportation of chemicals etc. Selective stimulation of the nerve is a therapeutic method to treat depression and epilepsy. However, over-stimulation of this nerve can disrupt blood circulation and even cause the individual to go into coma.
Disorders of the vagus nerve can be categorized as an under-active (or inactive) and overactive nerve. An inactive nerve can trigger problems like gastroparesis, which is characterized by stomach ache, nausea induced vomiting, weight loss and acid reflux.
In some cases, this condition can also lower the heart rate drastically, leading to a drop in blood pressure. It can have life-threatening consequences and the person may require a pacemaker to stabilize the heart. Over-activity can result in fainting spells, due to deprivation of oxygenated blood. Stress can also cause the nerve to divert blood away from the brain. Other causes for nerve damage or neuropathy are viral infection, diabetes and alcoholism. These factors destroy the neurotransmitters of the nerve cells, which results in permanent damage of the nerves.
Symptoms of Vagus Nerve Disorders
A problem in the vagus nerve can affect the functioning of the digestive system, cardiovascular system and also give rise to problems in the sensory organs. Given below are some of the symptoms which can help identify the disorders of the vagus nerve in the body. Identifying these symptoms in the initial stages and seeking prompt medical attention will help reduce the severity of the condition.
- One of the primary vagus disorders symptoms is pain. This can be seen as one of the pinched nerve symptoms. Pain is regarded as a signal to relay to the brain that a part of the body has been affected due to the presence of some disorder. Nerve pain is also known as neuralgia and may occur due to several reasons like an injury, blow or trauma to the nerve and also due to pinched nerve. Pain can travel to the entire length of the affected region.
- Damaged or irritated vagus nerve symptoms can be seen as a dysfunction of the organs in the body. Nerve damage can lead to disruption in the functioning of the organs and lead to organ failure, which may prove to be fatal in some cases.
- Muscle cramps due to weak muscles is also one of the symptoms of nerve disorders. This can damage the nerves, particularly the motor nerves which can cause difficulty in moving the fingers or grasping things. A damage to the peroneal nerves can make it difficult for the person to walk.
- Dysphagia or difficulty in swallowing is also one of the signs of nerve problems. This symptom may arise due to the damage of the nerve which controls the movements of the mouth and tongue. Gag reflex is also lost as a result of the damaged nerve.
- Peptic ulcer is also a common occurrence in individuals suffering from vagus nerve disorders. This is due to the reason that the stomach is unable to control the production of acids. This leads to the formation of stomach ulcers in the inner lining of the stomach. A few other symptoms are changes in voice, constipation due to digestive problems, arrhythmia and urinary incontinence which is the inability to control urine release, etc.
Treating Vagus Nerve Disorders
Consulting a doctor is always advisable in case an individual is affected by this nerve disorder. In case of depression and epilepsy, the doctor may opt for vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). This therapy involves the implantation of a device, similar to a pacemaker, in the chest. Electric pulses are then passed to the brain through the wires under the skin, which help in controlling the symptoms of depression. In case of epilepsy, these signals keep a check on seizures and reduce their frequency of occurrence. To treat peptic or stomach ulcers, a surgical procedure called vagotomy is undertaken. This procedure involves the cutting of the nerve and reduces hunger. However, this process is still under research.
Vagus nerve disorders can be a cause of grave concern, since they interconnect the most vital organs of the body - the heart and the lungs. Hence timely medical intervention must be sought in case of any disorders of the nerves, since they can result in permanent disability. Take care!