Vagus Nerve Stimulation: New Migraine Treatment
This article discusses the new vagus nerve stimulator, it’s success in migraine treatment, why the vagus nerve is critical for migraine prevention, and other ways to improve the vagus nerve for fighting migraines.
The FDA approved the vagus nerve stimulator gammaCore for the treatment of migraines. The new approval expands the device’s use to include migraine. Previously the device was only approved for treating cluster headaches in the United States, despite having been used as a migraine treatment for some time outside of the United States.
GammaCore is placed over the vagus nerve, which runs down both sides of the throat, and releases a mild electrical stimulation to the nerve.
The device isn’t so different from the non-evasive electric stimulators currently on the market, such as Cefaly, eNeura’s TMS unit, or TENS units. Albeit, each unit is designed to target different sets of nerves.
Cefaly targets the trigeminal nerve, which runs throughout the face and is associated with triggering migraines.
eNeura’s TMS unit targets the occipital nerve in the neck, which connects to the trigeminal nerve and is also a responsible culprit of migraine activation.
TENS is an electric nerve stimulation that uses pads to deliver the electric stimulation. It’s a cheap alternative to approved electric stimulators for migraines. These stimulators are favored among migraine sufferers but are not FDA approved for the use of migraines specifically.
The HealthmateForever is $26 on Amazon*, versus the 300 or 400 plus dollars that migraine approved devices cost, which is justified by their research and approval costs. (*Amazon affiliate links help support running the free migraine education on this site.)
GammaCore Success, Leading to FDA Approval
GammaCore was administered to 243 migraine patients at the onset of migraines, and the results are as follows, according to a new study published by the International Headache Society:
- 13% were pain free at 30 minutes (vs. 4% in the control group)
- 21% were pain free at 60 minutes (vs. 10% in the control group)
- 30% were pain free at 2 hours (vs. 20% in the control group)
- 41% had mild pain or no pain at 2 hours (vs. 27% in the control group)
These are excellent results for an alternative treatment to drugs, which have awful side effects, or surgically implanted stimulators, which are risky and can cost upwards of $70,000. The study is just another confirmation of how influential the vagus nerve is and how improving its function will reduce migraine pain.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve helps control autonomic systems such as the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It extends from the brain, down each side of the throat, through the chest, and down to the abdomen, where it relays signals from the body to the brain.
The vagus nerve plays numerous roles in maintaining health and preventing migraines.
Seven Ways the Vagus Nerve Prevents Migraines
The vagus nerve opposes the fight-or-flight response. Vagus nerve dysfunction causes the inability to control emotions and stress, leading to anxiety, insomnia, and depression (study).
Vagus nerve stimulation is currently researched or in use for the treatment of anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, and migraine (study).
Stress is a primary migraine trigger and migraines are more likely in those who sufferer anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, insomnia, and PTSD (article).
- Autonomic function
The vagus nerve is a major component of the autonomic nervous system. Poor vagal tone leads to low autonomic function.
The average migraine sufferer has less than 60 percent of the autonomic function than that of a healthy individual, measured by norepinephrine levels, and many migraineurs have under 40 percent function (study).
Vagus nerve stimulation improves autonomic function, which must play a role in the new success of gammaCore in migraine treatment (study).
Vagus nerve stimulators have been used since 1997 to control seizures in epilepsy patients (study). The vagus nerve regulates glutamate, which becomes a migraine and seizure trigger in large amounts (study).
Anti-seizure medications, which block glutamate, are used to control both seizures and migraine (study). Seizures also increase the risk of migraines.
As a side note, CBD was successful in children with treatment-resistant epilepsy who were not helped by medication or vagus nerve stimulators (study). If improving the vagal tone doesn’t work for you, CBD may be something to consider (article).
The vagus nerve stimulates anti-inflammatory effects (study). Vagus nerve stimulation reduces inflammation markers and pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis, which is a chronic autoimmune disease that occurs when inflammation damages the joints (study).
A recent study of more than 58,000 migraine sufferers found that migraines more than doubled the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis (study). Inflammation resulting in migraines was predictable, as inflammation is a chief migraine trigger (article). Any extra pain relief for migraine sufferers is welcomed.
The gut creates and sends neurotransmitters such as serotonin via the vagus nerve, which is one reason why it’s being researched for depression and migraines (study).
Serotonin is the happy brain chemical which is needed to stay migraine free. Because the brain plays a role in gut health, and vice versa, the communicating nerve between must function for either to be healthy.
Autonomic nervous system dysfunction, including an underactive vagus nerve, plays a role in the development of irritable bowel syndrome (study). IBS and gut problems increase the risk of migraines, for multiple reasons and according to multiple studies (article).
- Blood Pressure
They’re also more likely to faint, which can be a sign of poor vagal function (study). Improving vagal tone and autonomic function could help this situation.
- Weight Loss
As the key communicator between the gut and brain, the vagus nerve controls metabolism. “The disruption of vagal afferent signaling is sufficient to drive obesity,” according to a recent study published in The Journal of Physiology.
Poor vagal tone along with reduced hormone function could be why obesity is more likely in migraine sufferers (study).
For reasons not yet fully understood, vagal nerve stimulation prevents weight gain from diet and promoted weight loss in small clinical trials in patients with depression or epilepsy (study).
How to Naturally Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
By now, you have plenty of reason to stimulate the vagus nerve for migraine prevention, but you don’t need costly vagus nerve stimulators to do it.
It’s plausible that using a cheap TENS unit on the neck to target the vagus nerve would also work, but there’s not enough research yet to know for sure if it will help migraine. The gammaCore study used these specifications: “pulse width 200 mS, frequency 5 kHz, intensity maximum 24 V, with a six-minute application at the time of migraine onset.” Variations of this frequency may also work, but you should always talk to a doctor before using a medical device for off-label applications.
The Best Ways to Improve Vagal Tone
Cold therapy has had a ton of success in migraine research, as well as improving autonomic function, which can read about in my article on the Wim Hof Method.
To target the vagus nerve specifically, use a flexible cold pack (FlexiKold – Amazon affiliate link) or better yet a cold therapy unit (ColdRush with a universal pad– Amazon affiliate link) around the neck for 20 minutes twice per day. I’ll do a full review of cold therapy machines in the future. They are incredible.
Various forms of controlled breathing are proven to stimulate the vagus nerve, which “may explain some of the positive emotional and cognitive benefits of deep breathing, yoga, or aerobic exercise activities,” according to a large review of vagus nerve stimulation (study).
Breathing and relaxation exercises are successful in migraine treatment, which you can read about in my article on Navy SEALs Breathing. Try the cold therapy around the neck for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night in conjunction with controlled breathing. The Wim Hof Method also uses a proven breathing technique for controlling vagal tone.
Controlled breathing can be as simple as a deep breath in for one second (one-one thousand in) and a deep breath out for one second (one-one thousand out). The GIF above works pretty well too.