8 Things to Know About Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) Treatment

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is an FDA approved treatment for epilepsy in adults. The device helps prevent seizures and may be recommended when medication does not effectively control epilepsy. Below are 8 things to understand about treatment with a vagus nerve stimulator.

1. Treatment with a vagus nerve stimulator is only approved for certain types of seizures. Adults with epilepsy may have different types of seizures, such as primary generalized seizures. Currently VNS is only approved for the treatment of partial seizures. Additional research is being conducted to determine if a vagus nerve stimulator may also be effective in treating other types of seizures.

2. It involves surgical insertion of a small device under the skin, which sends small electrical pulses to a nerve in the neck referred to as the vagus nerve. From the nerve, the electrical impulse travels to the brain, where it hopefully prevents a seizure.

3. The device can be adjusted without the need for additional surgery. The intensity and frequency of electrical impulses is set by the patient’s doctor. This may need to be adjusted depending on the patient’s response. Adjustments in the frequency of electrical impulses and their intensity are made by using a special programming wand and a computer.

4. According to Columbia University Medical Center Department of Neurology, about two-thirds of patients who have a vagus nerve stimulator have a decrease in the number of seizures they have. The remaining one third of people do not see a change in the number of seizures they experience.

5. Side effects can occur with a vagus nerve stimulator. The procedure is considered safe and usually does not cause serious side effects. When side effects do occur they may include a sore throat and hoarseness.

6. Medication is still usually needed. Having a VNS does not usually mean medication can be stopped. People who are on more than one seizure medication may be able to stop taking one medication or cut back on the dosage.

7. The device is battery operated and will have to be replaced sometime in the future. The exact length of time the device will last may vary. It may depend on the model of the device and the frequency it is set at. The patient should be made aware of the device’s battery life prior to surgery.

8. Insurance companies may cover the cost of the procedure. Although coverage varies greatly by individual polices, use of a vagus nerve stimulator is not considered experimental and often covered.


Columbia University Medical Center Department of Neurology

Epilepsy Foundation