On 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.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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