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  • Writer's pictureAscend Physical Therapy

Role of the Vagus Nerve

Do you ever wonder how your body responds to stress? The human body is exceptional at adapting and responding to changes in the environment through self-regulating processes in order to maintain an internal stable environment, known as homeostasis. You often go through life not paying attention to these automatic processes because of how well your body is at adapting although the human body does have its limits. Humans are currently living in a very unique time in history as the world has drastically changed over the last 50 years. Our society has redefined expectations of productivity, success, and normalized fast-paced lifestyles. In essence, stress has widely become accepted as a part of our daily lives and we have become accustomed to dealing with many different stressors. It is no coincidence that anxiety rates have also run rampant over the last couple of decades as well. Fortunately, there may be ways to regulate your internal environment and management of your stress and anxiety through stimulation of the Vagus nerve.

The Vagus nerve is a vast network of nerve connections that descends from your brainstem to your heart, lungs, visceral organs, and gut. This nerve plays a vital role in regulating your autonomic nervous system primarily through the parasympathetic division or the “rest and digest” pathways which help slows down your heart rate, increase blood flow to your lungs, increase activity of your organs (pancreas, kidneys, gallbladder), and moving food through the gastrointestinal tracts. This nerve also provides your brain with sensory information from the vital organs promoting the release of specific hormones and proteins that support your immune system to combat infection. The Vagus nerve is divided into two separate efferent branches: the ventral (front) and dorsal (back) motor branches which both act to counteract increased sympathetic nervous system activity (the fight/flight response). Examples of when the sympathetic nervous system may increase in activity may occur when you are competing in a sporting event, running from a Grizzly bear, or even simply thinking of the many checklists of errands you have to complete by the end of the day. In order to maintain homeostasis, there must be a “checks and balance” system within the autonomic nervous system to efficiently distribute energy and resources for important processes in your body to maintain an optimal and healthy internal environment for your body to function.

With prolonged periods of stress, your body may reach a breaking point where it may no longer be able to sustain the same level of activity resulting in a physiological state of “emergency shutdown.” The autonomic nervous system may come to a halt through over-excitation of the dorsal motor branch of the Vagus nerve forcing the autonomic nervous system to switch gears to allocate resources and energy to vital organs for survival and turn off the prolonged usage of this fight or flight response. This may lead to changes in the tone of the Vagus nerve which leads to dysfunction triggering a cascade of effects consisting of a weakened immune system, altered neurotransmitter firing, and hormonal imbalance. Vagus nerve function has steadily been receiving attention in recent years as scientific evidence has been displaying the effectiveness of regulating our autonomic nervous system through stimulation of this nerve.

With an advancing body of research and awareness regarding the benefits of regulating the autonomic nervous system through Vagus nerve stimulation, there are now direct methods to treat a variety of medical impairments. An individual with chronic dizziness symptoms such as in the case of Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, Meniere’s Disease, Migraine-Associated Vertigo, Persistent Postural Perceptual Dizziness, and Post Concussion Syndrome may be unaware of how their dizziness may be unresolved due to their body remaining in a prolonged state of fight or flight activity. As the dizziness remains present, the body may remain trapped in an upregulated sympathetic nervous system response and the vicious cycle continues further contributing to elevated anxiety levels and more dizziness. Many individuals with the aforementioned diagnoses may benefit from the expertise of a Physical Therapist’s manual treatments of the cervical spine in efforts to promote autonomic nervous system changes through hands-on Vagus Nerve manipulation techniques.

Our Physical Therapists at Ascend Physical Therapy are trained to identify these autonomic nervous system imbalances and thoroughly assess the cervical spine’s contribution to an individual’s prolonged experience of dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and fear of falling by directly manipulating specific muscles surrounding the regions where the Vagus nerve passes through in order to potentially alter the physiological tone of the Vagus nerve. Our understanding of the various dizziness pathologies and the role of the Vagus nerve’s direct therapeutic effect in reversing the flight or flight response may prove to be beneficial in helping individuals afflicted with dizziness regain control of their lives and promote a positive impact in the reduction of their symptoms by promoting a balanced autonomic nervous system. If you would like more information regarding Vagus nerve treatment, please feel free to schedule a consultation with any one of our staff Physical Therapists or give us a call!


Author: Jerry Young, PT, DPT

Dr. Jerry Young, PT, DPT received his Bachelor of Arts degree from University of California Irvine in Business Economics and Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Chapman University. From his graduate studies, he acquired clinical experience at inpatient and outpatient settings treating patients with orthopedic, neurologic, and vestibular impairments. As a Physical Therapist, he believes in empowering his patients to achieve their goals in order to achieve their personal goals and optimize their quality of life. He is a Los Angeles Lakers fan and loves all kinds of sports. During his free time, he enjoys spending time with his friends, weightlifting at the gym, playing basketball, hiking, and snowboarding.

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