Headaches, Daith Piercings, and the Vagus Nerve

42212395_lOn November 28th, Science News published an interesting article on the science of the vagus nerve in the human body. It is the tenth cranial nerve in the body traveling from the brain to multiple organs in the body. It has thousand of fibers, and it influences functions throughout the body from the stomach and intestines to the heart and brain. The nerve has fibers that travel relatively superficially through the neck and in the skin of the ear. Stimulation of the vagus nerve in the neck has been used for a variety of disorders including many stomach and gastrointestinal problems as well as depression and seizures. Now the ear is the focus of treatment of number of problems by stimulating the vagus nerve as it travels in the region of the tragus of the ear.

The Vagus Nerve and Headaches

Headaches are extremely common. Many people struggle with the management of chronic daily headaches. Drugs are often not the answer, and can oftentimes make headaches worse. A lot of people also do not want to be putting more chemicals into their body. Finding suitable alternatives is difficult. Treatments for headaches run the gamut from diets to all kinds of supplements to stress management. Alternative medicine also has a number of treatments from chiropractic adjustment to acupuncture. Now there may be link to why these therapies work in terms of traditional medical knowledge, it is not just a coincidence they are effective.

Daith piercings and regionalized acupuncture for headache relief may now have a scientific root in the vagus nerve. This nerve has sensory branches that travel in the ear in the region of where the targets for acupuncture are and where a Daith piercing is placed. Electrical stimulation of the ear and vagus nerve has been done to treat headaches, depression, memory loss, and seizures. The vagus nerve has control over a variety of the body’s hormones, including acetylcholine and norepinephrine. The balance of these hormones can be affected by stimulating branches of the vagus nerve. Electrical or mechanical stimulation in the ear can accomplish changes to the branch of the vagus nerve and thus affect any process influenced by this nerve. Headaches have been known to be affected by vagal stimulation, and some have found pain relief through nerve stimulation.

As noted above, some headaches respond to vagal stimulation and improve, while others don’t. There are multiple ways to stimulate the nerve – electrical stimulation, mechanical stimulation as well as medication stimulation. Acupuncture, massage and Daith piercings provide mechanical stimulation of the region and possibly the nerve. Some varieties may respond to different types of stimulation. If your headaches have a vagal component, probably ear massage, electrical stimulation or acupuncture trials will determine if this may be helpful. If those work, consideration of Daith piercing for headaches may be aligned with your treatment strategies. If the above is not helpful, working with a neurologist, a  headache specialist or pain specialist may also be helpful to find other solutions.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).

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12 thoughts on “Headaches, Daith Piercings, and the Vagus Nerve

  1. I have had chronic migraines for 38 years. Some meds help for a while then you have to change to a different one. Please don’t judge what people chose to do to manage the pain until you have had a migraine for days ended up in the emergency room throwing up and feeling like your head is going to blow.

    • Try massaging each ear when a headache arises. If pressure on one side provides some relief, maybe that’s the only side you need to get pierced.

  2. I had migraines for years and I would get the auras and blurry vision with mine and I would get at least 3-4 a week! I done the Daith piercing in both ears and it is a painful piercing and takes a long time to heal! After 4 months (migraine free) my ears were still very sore so I took the earrings out of the Daith’s in both ears! Well about 3 days later I had a severe migraine, needless to say I put my Daith earrings back in and one I had to literally pop it back through and it was worth it! I have not had a migraine since and I’ve had my Daith’s pierced now for about 7 months and the only migraine I’ve had is the one I got after I took them out and before I put them back in! The piercings have now healed and they are not sore at all! With the Daith piercings there is NO gray area, either they work for you or they don’t!

    • I had my daith piercing done this past Saturday. I only had one ear done. I am having pain in my jaw and teeth on the side where I have the piercing. Did you experience this?

      I’m really trying to remain hopeful and positive.

  3. I am really thinking about doing this. I’ve tried a slew of different pain meds. I’ve tried figuring out what triggers my migraines. Nothing has helped. And I’m getting sick of popping ibuprofen like candy. Problem is I don’t do pain. I got my belly done and I screamed. How much pain am I going to be in when they do this? This has to be much worse.

    • I’ve had headaches all day everyday for a long time ,so I heard about this piercing and I went and got it done right away, went in with a headache and left pain free , literally! Did not hurt one bit, thought it would i was so scared, but I had no pain, and It’s been 3 days now still no pain , headache, or the piercing site, it bleed a little, cause I slept on it, cleaned it up and it’s healing , so very thankful I had it done, I love being pain free

  4. Hi Dr. Cohn,
    I was wondering if there was any way to pinpoint or come close to mapping out where the nerve runs through. I have heard “back further” but so far haven’t found any good diagrams. I was lookingoing at the piercing because my migraines centralize right above my right ear. I went to see someone about the piercing and ask questions – they had done the piercing numerous times but said it was hit or miss on the nerve.
    Thank you so much for posting your current info on this as well as suggestions to see if it might worknow (the massage etc).

    • I’m always searching for more definitive information on the Daith piercing, and I’ll post it if I find the information you’re looking for, Karen. Thanks for reaching out!

  5. I got my Daith Piercing on September 9th in my right Ear. I have had Chronic Migraines since the military and when I got it done, my migraine was gone within 30 minutes and it was great. The following week, still migraine free and it was not until Sept 24, 25 I experienced a really bad one.Now during this time my Nero was increasing my meds, which I am on Topomax and have been for a very long time and it had always worked until I would say this past year my migraines started coming back really bad. I was always on 200mg in the morning, 200mg at night. Doing and increase program to reach 500mg morning and night now. Next migraine was Oct 2,3,4, then 8, 9, 14, 15, 27, 28, 30, 31, Nov, 6, Nove 13, 14,15, 16 and all these the light, sound, odor, nausea, vomiting bother me, and usually it was the right side with throbbing, but now it is always constant pressure moving around whole head, right side, left, sitting behind my eyes. I use a soothe away device, sunglasses on my eyes, anything I possible can but so far no relief anymore to get rid of this migraine. This piercing does not seem to be healing and it is painful and I want to rip my ear out and I have an issue with my body rejecting jewelry so I am wondering if I should get it removed? It heals and then it scabs and then heals and scabs so I know it has that kelliog on it. Let me know your thoughts.

    • Sorry to hear about your issues, Melissa. If you are going to wean off a treatment option, consider doing one at a time so you can really see what works and what doesn’t work, be it removing the piercings, a change in neuro meds, or another treatment method. If you believe your body is rejecting the piercing, that may be a good place to start. Best of luck – Dr. Cohn.

  6. Dr Thomas,

    I have lived with Chronic Daily migraines since I was 18 and I am now 34. I have been on a lot of different medications and the only med that ever worked was the Topomax and 400 mg 2 x a day until maybe as I mentioned this past year. I started the increase of the same med from 400 morning to 450 at night for 7 days, then 450 morning to 450 night 7 days, then 450 morning, 500 night 7 days, then 500 morning and 500 night and that is what I have been on, but I am not having relief and I am wondering if it may be because the Daith piercing hurts and is adding pressure and irritating me? I do not know much about them to really know. I decided to decrease my meds back to 450 morning and 500 night since I had a long strand where my head was not hurting, so maybe that may give me some relief. I am just now starting that decrease today. My head has been hurting for 4 days with vomiting and light sensitivity and now my head is hurting going from the right to the left to the whole head, but it is up and down like it wants to go away but can not make up its mind. I have never had these types of migraines. I have always been able to know about mine and now I have nothing. Any idea why I would have such a change? Could it be the increase in meds or the piercing? My stress in my life is finally down, so I can not include that. I am wondering if I should seek out migraine glasses or herbs or anything.

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