While the COVID-19 pandemic started over two years ago, many people still feel its effects daily. Research suggests almost 30% of Americans who had the COVID-19 virus qualify for a long-COVID diagnosis.
But what is long-COVID, and why is it so debilitating? Unfortunately, it is fairly new and poorly understood, leaving several people with side effects like low blood pressure and nausea.
Some of these signs match up with VNS malfunction signs, and the two might play a closer role than originally thought. If you have wondered, “is my VNS malfunctioning?” we have a complete guide for you.
In our article, we will talk about the most common signs your VNS is malfunctioning and the best treatment that you can start using at home. Ready to get started?
Keep reading on for more information!
What Is Your Vagus Nerve?
Before answering the question “what is VNS malfunction?” it helps to have a better idea of what your vagus nerve is and its role in the body. Your vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves in your body that communicates between the brain and body.
Some cranial nerves, such as the vagus nerve, are unique and have sensory and motor functions. It is the tenth (and longest) cranial nerve and serves several functions in the body, like:
- Heart rhythm
- Breathing rate
- Other cardiovascular activity
- Reflexes (e.g., coughing, sneezing, vomiting)
Experts also think that it plays a critical role in your gut health and communication with the brain. Your gut-brain axis is speculated to have a strong tie with several other illnesses like depression or obesity.
The vagus nerve also affects other sensory and motor functions, such as the sensation behind your ear and the back of the throat. It also works with your esophagus, larynx, and soft palate to help move food into your stomach and intestines.
As you can imagine, a simple way to test your vagus nerve is known as the “gag reflex.” If a quick swipe of a cotton-tipped swab along the back of your throat does not initiate a gag, it could be a sign of vagal nerve issues.
What Causes Vagal Nerve Damage?
Along with natural causes of decline, such as age, there are several other reasons your vagus nerve could become damaged, like:
- Chronic illnesses
- Poor lifestyle choices (e.g., smoking and excessive drinking)
- Nerve damage
More research has come out pointing towards long-COVID symptoms and vagal nerve health. The COVID-19 virus could damage parts of your vagus nerve, leading to several adverse effects, including:
- Light headedness
- Orthostatic hypotension
Out of 348 patients with long-COVID symptoms, 66% of them showed signs of vagal nerve damage. Some of the most common vagal nerve symptoms in these patients were diarrhea, tachycardia, and dizziness.
When you read about “signs of VNS malfunction,” you will likely encounter a term called vagal tone. At its core, your vagal tone is the health of your vagus nerve.
Over time, vagal tone declines, leading to several health problems. Typically, this natural decline occurs around age 55. Stimulating your vagus nerve improves vagal tone and health.
It is the crux behind products like vagal nerve simulators and other therapeutic techniques, which aim to improve vagal tone and reduce VNS malfunction signs.
VNS Malfunction Signs
What is VNS malfunction, and how can you prevent it? VNS malfunction is when your vagus nerve stops functioning in part or whole as it should. Since it is the longest cranial nerve with several branches, you can have damage at any point, which could isolate symptoms.
For example, damage near the superior portion might result in more swallowing or taste changes. VNS malfunction with your superior cardiac nerves could cause issues with heart rhythm.
A critical aspect of the vagus nerve to remember is that it is part of your parasympathetic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system is part of your autonomic system, which controls your fight or flight responses.
While the sympathetic nervous system activates your “fight” reflexes, your parasympathetic nervous is your relaxation center. It triggers heart rate rhythms and breathing rates, including digestion. Some of the signs that your VNS is malfunctioning are:
- Abdominal pain
- Low blood pressure
- Heart arrhythmia
- Difficulty speaking or swallowing
It can also trigger excessive parasympathetic activity, such as bradycardia. When your heart rate and blood pressure drop, it leads to syncope or passing out.
What Is Gastroparesis?
Gastroparesis is a common condition associated with VNS malfunctioning. With this condition, patients cannot fully empty their stomachs and food contents. The vagus nerve helps control food motility from your stomach into your intestines.
When food stops moving or moves too slowly, it can cause nausea, appetite loss, weight loss, or changes in blood sugar. Untreated gastroparesis could lead to blockages, vomiting, or severe acid reflux symptoms.
Vasovagal syncope is a fancy medical term that essentially means fainting. It occurs with sudden drops in heart rate and/or blood pressure.
This happens when your autonomic nervous system does not properly regulate your blood pressure or heart rate. In some instances, your blood pressure drops with changes in position, such as lying down to standing up.
This form of syncope is called orthostatic hypotension. With vasovagal syncope, strong emotions or feelings often predispose the fainting episode.
It could be emotions such as being scared or frightened or triggered by situations a person has a strong dislike or anxiety towards, like seeing blood. Vasovagal syncope is the most common reflex syncope and contributes to nearly 85% of syncopal episodes in adults younger than 40.
Mental Health Illnesses
More research has pointed toward the vagus nerve and worsening depression symptoms. Many patients who are treatment-resistant to other depression interventions could benefit from vagus nerve stimulators.
Current studies show that targeting the vagus nerve in patients with depression has long-lasting and positive effects. VNS treatments also reduced suicide ideation and improved quality of life.
In neurological scans, changes in mood regulatory centers were identified, including the brain stem and cortical regions.
More obvious signs of your vagus nerve malfunctioning are with swallowing or speech. Patients with severe neurological disorders like spinal cord injuries or stroke have benefited from vagal nerve therapy to improve their swallowing.
Although it has close ties with esophageal movements, it is not widely studied as a tool to help with swallowing disorders. One research team performed a meta-analysis. They found that patients with multiple sclerosis reported positive outcomes with vagal nerve stimulation with a primary complaint of dysphagia.
Epilepsy is a neurological misfiring resulting in multiple seizures. Vagal nerve stimulation has helped reduce epilepsy in some patient populations. But if the vagus nerve primarily works on your digestive and cardiac system, how does it affect your brain?
Researchers suspect it has to do with its diffuse neuron transmission. When neurons fire along the vagus nerve, it promotes widespread neuron excitability. While these neurons positively affect many aspects of your gastrointestinal and cardiac system, it also changes parts of the brain.
Neurological regions like your hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and cerebellum achieve activation from your vagus nerve.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Device
A vagus nerve stimulation device (tVNS) is a transcutaneous electrical stimulator that aims to improve your vagal tone. It is safe, comfortable, and easy to use at home.
If you have ever used a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) device for sore muscles, the concept is the same. You attach a small piece of wiring onto the tragus portion of your ear.
A digital display alerts you to the intensity level and timer for your adjustment. You can complete one session in 15 minutes. The advantage of a tVNS unit is it is much cheaper than invasive interventions and has fewer side effects and risks. Some of the health benefits of using a handheld tVNS unit are:
- Naturally improved vagal tone
- Decreased stress
- Activating the parasympathetic nervous system
- Improved mood
- Improve heart rate variability
- Improve relaxation
Even without significant signs that your VNS is malfunctioning, you can use it to help slow down the aging process and prevent future vagal tone issues.
Start Managing Your VNS Symptoms Today
VNS malfunction signs can be as subtle as slight changes in how you swallow or as pronounced as fainting episodes. Sometimes, they can onset after a viral illness, whereas others happen slowly as you age.
Managing VNS malfunction starts with a tVNS device that activates your vagus nerve through its sensory component along your ear. In return, you’ll start seeing amazing benefits like improved mood, digestion, and heart rate regulation.
Are you ready to get started? Start our vagal tone quiz to find out if you need help stimulating your vagus nerve today!