The vagus nerve is about 75% of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the regulation and relaxation of the body’s functions like digestion, feelings of well-being, and sleep.
In the past, vagus nerve stimulation typically involved implanting an invasive device to send electrical impulses directly to the vagus nerve. In this article, we discuss alternatives using non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation including cold water immersion (CWI), and its effects.
What Is The Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve – Latin for ‘wandering’ nerve – is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves and carries both sensory and motor signals from our brain stem through the neck and thorax into the chest and abdomen. It is the tenth of the twelve cranial nerves and is significantly involved in regulating the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is key to our healing.
The vagus nerve forms part of the parasympathetic nervous system, a branch of the ANS also consisting of the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s rest and digestion response and is essential for calming some major organs in our body. When stimulated, a healthy vagus nerve helps us to relax by reducing the heart rate, turning off inflammatory responses, and initiating the release of calming hormones. Overall, it plays a vital role in sustaining relaxation levels and wellness.
For a quick overview, a stimulated vagus nerve can treat symptoms ranging from anxiety, panic attacks, depression, epilepsy, and arthritis to inflammation. In the other regions of the body, it is partly responsible for the health of organs like the heart, lungs and gut, and even the immune system. Also, having a good vagus tone has been linked to improving medical issues like chronic back and neck pain.
Vagus Nerve Implicated In The Neck And Back Issues
Among a number of other health dysfunction, when issues develop in the neck, shoulder (upper back) region, a poorly functioning vagus nerve could be the cause. For instance, an underactive vagus nerve in the neck region can be responsible for complications in the pharynx and/or larynx, such as difficulty speaking or swallowing. It can also cause neck pain and resulting headaches as well as (sometimes seemingly unrelated) symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and even cardiac problems like tachycardia (when the heart rate is too fast). Spinal instability in the neck can result in compression of the vagus nerve and localized blood vessels that results in headaches including migraines.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
It’s safe to say the health and stimulated state of the vagus nerve is important to the function and well-being of our body. Historically, an underactive vagus nerve had been treated with implantable stimulators—a surgical implant would be inserted in the chest with a wire and lead trailing to the neck. The process was designed to electrically stimulate the nerve in patients whose vagus nerve wasn’t working well and was limited in use to epilepsy and people with medication-resistant depression.
Non-Invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation Methods
Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (nVNS) can start with mild calming methods, including breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, exercise, and focused massage therapy. Taking supplements like probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in the function of the brain, digestion, and nervous system, are also options. Other non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation methods use more intensive approaches for focused areas of the body.
Options for Non-Invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation In The Head and Neck
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a non-invasive treatment that uses a device pressed against the neck that sends impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve for treating migraines and cluster headaches.
Other devices activate the vagus nerve by stimulating the auricular branch through the skin on the ear. In addition to reductions in headaches and migraines, auricular branch stimulation increases heart rate variability (HRV).
Options for Vagus Nerve Stimulation For Back Pain Relief
A similar emerging technology, Percutaneous auricular VNS (pVNS), for stimulation of the auricular branch of the vagus nerve in the pinna of the ear, shows promise as a safe and effective adjunct treatment to treat chronic back pain patients. While this does a minimally invasive procedure to implant miniature electrodes to the auricle nerve, the research is indicating this is more effective at delivering the desired level of stimulation that cannot be achieved with the dermal application of stimulation.
Non-Invasive Cold Water Therapy For Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Cold therapy is the best available option for non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation. Cold water immersion (CWI) has been in use for centuries and also does not require electrical stimulation. As for the effects, whole-body, CWI stimulates the vagus nerve in body parts like the neck, chest, and back and all the various organs influenced by the parasympathetic nervous system. Numerous studies indicate that routine cold exposure increases parasympathetic activity and lowers the sympathetic “fight or flight” response through the vagus nerve. Practitioners of CWI report improved feelings of well-being and fewer incidents of disease and illness including headaches and back pain.
The connection of cold water stimulation on the vagus nerve has been extensively studied, providing proven data to support improved health of specific areas of the body, including the heart, lung, and stomach, also enhancing the immune system, inflammatory and stress responses, and symptoms of psychological and emotional disorders.
A 2018 randomized controlled trial on the effects of cold stimulation on cardiac- vagal activity confirmed that cold stimulation at the lateral neck region resulted in higher heart rate variability and lower heart rate than in controlled conditions. These parameters are indicative of improved health and well-being.
Cold Water Vagus Nerve Stimulation For Neck and Back Pain Relief
Cold therapy is a proven treatment for the relief of pain in patients with back pain and those with sciatica pain. Research also shows that CWI accelerates post-exercise parasympathetic activation of the vagus nerve to speed up recovery as opposed to warm water immersion. As shown above, neck pain including headaches and migraines are also improved with stimulation of the vagus nerve, which can be achieved through CWI.
Additionally, the use of whole-body cold therapy is used to treat a number of other issues influenced by the vagus nerve, namely as a treatment for reduced mental health issues, especially in mood disorders such as depression.
Other methods involving isolated cold water techniques are also effective for stimulating the vagus nerve, including cold water swimming, which has been demonstrated to stimulate the intestines and immune system.
Whole Body Cold Water Therapy With Ice Barrel
Compared to other non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation methods, cold water therapy is considered the most comprehensive and effective, adding multiple health values for the entire body. Optimizing your cold water exposure with a cold tool like Ice Barrel allows you to maximize the gains of cold therapy. Learn more about Ice Barrel for non-invasive cold therapy and take control of the functions and well-being of your body.