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What is it?

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a treatment option for people with epilepsy or depression. A device is implanted in the neck that connects to a nerve that comes from your brain called the vagus nerve (aka cranial nerve 10). A small electrode is wrapped around the nerve in the neck and emits electric pulsations which can decrease the frequency of seizures or need for medication. It has also been shown to alleviate depression that is resistant to medications. The electrode is connected to a battery which is implanted under the skin in the chest like a pace-maker. The device is programmable to suit the individual needs of each patient. The patient also receives a magnet which allows them to control the stimulator themselves.

What is its goal?

The goal of vagus nerve stimulation is to treat epilepsy or depression, when medication alone is not effective.

How is it done?

Implanting the Vagus Nerve Stimulator is a surgical procedure that is usually performed as an outpatient surgery. The procedure can be done using general or local anesthesia if necessary. Two small incisions are made, one in the neck to gain access to the Vagus Nerve, and the other under the collar bone for the battery. An electrode is gently wrapped around the Vagus and the wiring is then tunneled to the battery under the collar bone. The procedure usually takes about an hour to perform. The Vagus Nerve Stimulator can be turned on within the first 24 hours after surgery.

What are the risks?

The risks of implanting the simulator are low and including minor surgical complications such as bleeding and infection. The Vagus nerve partially controls the voice and sometimes can cause hoarseness or throat pain if the stimulator is turned up too high. The patient will receive a magnet that can deactivate the stimulator if unwanted side effects occur.

What is the success rate?

VNS therapy can reduce the number of seizures, how long each seizure lasts and the amount of medication needed. Unfortunately, VNS is unlikely to stop the seizures completely (occurs in about 5%). Studies have shown that in about 1/3 of patients with epilepsy, the number of seizures is reduced by half or more. In another 1/3 the seizure frequency is decreased but by less than half and in the last third, there is no benefit.

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