19 Jul 2022
A blog about the vagus nerve, and why we, as physiotherapists, care about this nerve!
By Erin Lanting, BSc., MScPT
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve (CN X) and plays an important role in our ability to have a healthy stress response and communicates to our brain about what’s going on in many of our organs. In particular, it helps regulate digestion, heart rate and our immune system responses. The vagus nerve is a mixed nerve, which means that it carries both motor and sensory information mostly towards the brain to relay what is happening in our body. It plays a huge role in our parasympathetic nervous system which controls our “rest & digest” functions, ultimately combatting our “fight or flight” stress response.
Where is the vagus nerve located?
Although we refer to the vagus nerve as singular, there are actually two of them, one on each side of the body. The pair of nerves emerge from your brainstem, running along the front and side of your neck, down through your chest & towards your large intestine with many branches along the way.
The vagal nerves play important roles in many involuntary sensory and motor (movement) functions including
- •Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate
- •Immune system responses
- •Mucus & saliva production
- •Skin & muscle sensations
- •Urine output
Why do we care as physiotherapists?
This is really twofold. For one, the vagus nerve plays a vital role in regulating inflammation & nervous system sensitivity, which is important when we are dealing with chronic pain, injury and healing of tissues. This means that in addition to our typical physiotherapy treatments, we may also suggest some of the strategies listed below, to essentially help reduce the apparent threat level in your body. This is also why we will often ask our patients about their stress level, so that we can get a good overall picture of contributing factors to their symptoms, so that we can develop the most effective treatment plan. Typically, if you have chronic pain, you will likely benefit from vagus nerve techniques and exercises. Secondly, if someone presents with neck pain or tightness, we know based on the location of the vagus nerve, that this might cause the nerve to be less mobile, congested or even squished, which will inevitably affect its function and their ability to control the stress response. So in this case, it will be helpful to utilize techniques and stretches to reduce tightness on the front of the neck and improve the mobility of the vagus nerve to help keep our nervous system from going into overdrive. So, in the first case, the nervous system is likely already in overdrive and we want to try to calm it down, and in the second case, we are more so trying to prevent the nervous system from kicking into a chronically stressful state.
How to stimulate the vagus nerve
I will be posting further detailed information on each of these over the next couple of weeks so keep an eye on our facebook page if you want to learn more!
- •Neck stretches and releases focused more on the front of your neck
- •Gargling water
- •Pursed lip breathing
- •Cold Exposure
- •Take omega-3 fatty acids
There is SO much information out there on the vagus nerve, this is really just the tip of the iceberg! However, I think it’s safe to say that what happens in vagus definitely does NOT stay in vagus…