The vagal nerves carry signals between your brain, heart, and digestive system. They’re a key part of your parasympathetic nervous system. Vagus nerve damage can lead to gastroparesis, food not moving into your intestines. Some people with vasovagal syncope faint from low blood pressure. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can treat epilepsy and depression. The vagus nerve, also known as the vagal nerves, are the main nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system. This system controls specific body functions such as your digestion, heart rate and immune system.
These functions are involuntary, meaning you can’t consciously control them. Your left and right vagal nerves contain 75% of your parasympathetic nervous system’s nerve fibers. These fibers send information between your brain, heart and digestive system. The vagus nerves are the 10th of 12 cranial nerves. The vagus is known as cranial nerve X, the Roman numeral for 10. Your vagal nerves are part of your body’s nervous system. They play important roles in involuntary sensory and motor (movement) functions, including digestion, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. It also plays an important role in your immune system response, mood, mucus and saliva production, skin and muscle sensations, speech taste and urine output. Your parasympathetic nervous system controls “rest and digest” functions. It’s the opposite of your sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response.
These two nervous systems make up your autonomic nervous system. This system controls involuntary body activities. Your vagus nerves are the longest cranial nerve, running from your brain to your large intestine. Your left vagus nerve travels down the left side of your body. The right vagus nerve travels down the right side of your body. “Vagus” is the Latin word for wandering. Your vagal nerves take a long, winding course through your body. They exit from your medulla oblongata in your lower brainstem. Then, the nerves pass through or connect with your neck between your carotid artery and jugular vein, chest (thorax), heart, lungs, abdomen and digestive tract.
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Your left and right vagal nerves join to form the vagal trunk. They connect at your esophageal hiatus, the opening where your esophagus passes into your abdominal cavity (belly). The vagal trunk includes anterior (front) and posterior (back) gastric nerves that go to your abdomen. You have 3 vagal nerve branches which are the following; Inferior ganglion branch that serves nerves and muscles to your throat (pharynx) and voice box (larynx). Secondly, you have the superior ganglion branch that serves nerves to your spine and ear. Third, vagus nerve branch that serves nerves to your heart, lungs and esophagus (tube connection your mouth and stomach). There are 2 conditions that can be involved with your vagus nerve.
1. The Gastroparesis occurs when damage to a vagus nerve stops food from moving into your intestines from your stomach. This vagal nerve damage can result from diabetes, viral infections, abdominal surgery and scleroderma.
2. The Vasovagal syncope: Syncope is another word for fainting. Vasovagal syncope occurs when a vagus nerve to your heart overreacts to certain situations like extreme heat, anxiety, hunger, pain or stress. Blood pressure drops very quickly (orthostatic hypotension), making you feel dizzy or faint.
Vagus nerve conditions cause different symptoms depending on the specific cause and affected part of your nerve. You may experience abdominal pain and bloating, acid reflux, change of heart rate, blood pressure or blood sugar. You may also experience difficulty swallowing or loss of gag reflex, dizziness, fainting, hoarseness, wheezing or loss of voice. Lastly, you may experience a loss of appetite, feeling full quickly or unexplained weight loss.