Stimulating the Vagus Nerve of the Ear

15 September, 2020
When small flows of electrical current are applied to the ear, it generates a sensation of tingling. Doctors use it to reduce discomfort caused by some of the aging processes, including pain.

Stimulating the vagus nerve of the ear is a technique applied for complex issues such as pain management and slowing down aging to a certain degree. In fact, it’s become quite popular in recent times and this is why the number of investigations to validate its effectiveness is on the rise.

Studies such as those carried out by theTechnische Universität Wien (Technical University of Vienna) highlight the effectiveness of stimulation of the ear’s vagus nerve to alleviate chronic pain. The results are highly encouraging, but more research is still needed.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what science can tell us so far.

Stimulating the vagus nerve

How is it that the stimulation of the vagus nerve of the ear can affect pain, aging, and even matters as complex as mental health?

It’s because there’s a link between the location of this nerve, the auditory apparatus, and certain functions of the human body systems.

The ear is a gateway to the nervous system. There are specific areas where to stimulate the vagus nerve, mainly in the outer part of the ear. Because this structure runs through internal organs, the information it carries reaches most of the body.

The vagus nerve, also known as the pneumogastric nerve, transmits information from the brain to different organs, such as the lungs and the heart. Likewise, it has a sympathetic and parasympathetic branch. It regulates functions such as respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion through both.

This technique involves inserting small electrodes, controlled by a portable device on the neck, into the ear. This device transmits electrical pulses, so a person often experiences a tickling sensation.

A doctor doing a check-up on a patient.
The ear is the gateway to the central nervous system.

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An antidote to diseases related to aging?

A study carried out by the University of Leeds and published in Aging magazine revealed that this technique helps protect people from various diseases associated with aging. Specifically, these are hypertension and heart disease.

According to Beatrice Bretherton, coordinator of the study, the simulation influences the metabolic balance of the body to carry out corrective actions. Fortunately, the stimulation of the vagus nerve of the ear doesn’t require drugs or other invasive procedures.

You may not be aware of this, but the sympathetic branch of the vagus nerve helps the body prepare to either fight or flight. Also, the parasympathetic branch affects rest and digestion. When people begin to age, the sympathetic branch progressively takes over.

The technique for stimulating the vagus nerve of the ear is used for reversing this situation. What it does is activate the parasympathetic branch and balance it with the sympathetic branch. There’s less stress; therefore, less risk of developing various health conditions under these conditions, such as those mentioned above.

Vagus nerve stimulation for chronic pain

The technique for stimulating the vagus nerve in the ear also has positive effects in the treatment of chronic pain. You must take into account that the vagus nerve arises in the medulla oblongata and innervates the pharynx, esophagus, larynx, trachea, bronchi, heart, stomach, pancreas, liver, and some other viscera.

Stimulating the fibers of the vagus nerve decreases pain. However, the biggest challenge doctors face is getting the electrodes in the right place.

Computer models have been able to establish, with increasing precision, which electrical signals should be used. Both the intensity and the shape of these signals are influencing factors.

A person with ear pain.
The ear and the vagus nerve communicate with various organs of the body, hence the basis of stimulating it for pain relief.

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Additional effects of the technique

This type of stimulation has also been effective in eliminating tinnitus. The main characteristic of this condition is a persistent ringing in your ear that doesn’t come from any external source. It has multiple causes ranging from trauma, Ménière’s syndrome, stress, or fatigue due to overwork.

Overall, the revelations regarding this technique are just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers believed they’ll find new applications and benefits for this innovative method in the near future.

  • Niebla, J. G. (2004). Imágenes electrocardiográficas derivadas de una incorrecta colocación de los electrodos V1-V2. Enfermería en cardiología: revista científica e informativa de la Asociación Española de Enfermería en Cardiología, (32), 38-44.
  • Bretherton, B. (2019, 30 julio). Effects of transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation in individuals aged 55 years or above: potential benefits of daily stimulation. Recuperado 7 de junio de 2020, de https://www.aging-us.com/
  • Velasco, R. C. (2019). Nuevas terapias: Electrocéutica. Diagnóstico, 58(4), 211-211.