If you believe you're dealing with vagus nerve pain in the neck, you've come to the right place. We're going to help you understand everything you need to know about this nerve. This includes how it functions and the roles it serves, and how you can determine if the pain you're feeling in your neck is actually due to this nerve or not. We'll then explain how you can start alleviating some of the symptoms you're feeling, and discuss more serious treatment options and long-term plans.
This is a complicated little nerve that can cause not just pain, but also headaches & other weird symptoms throughout the body and mind - including anxiety and depression. You don't need to continue trying to live through this discomfort - we're here to help. We've got a lot to cover, so let's start with some anatomy.
What Exactly Is The Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is one a lot of people aren't super familiar with, because it's so obscure. We often don't know it exists until it's become inflamed or pinched - which is where the trouble starts to arise. This is the tenth cranial nerve, of which we have 12 total. It starts in our brain and works all the way down our spinal cord into the rest of our body.
We've seen it compared to the roots of a tree, extending throughout our body - and we like this analogy because it's accurate. The term vagus is Latin for "wandering" which is exactly what this super long nerve does - it wanders throughout our body and while you may have never heard of it prior to today, it actually is responsible for a myriad of different roles.
The Captain Of The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The vagus nerve is considered the captain of the parasympathetic nervous system by the American Council on Exercise. This means it is super important for regulating a range of different parts of your body - including the stomach, intestines, heart, and more. It's actually the nerve that connects our body to our gut - so when you feel something is off in your stomach, it could be due to this nerve. We'll get into this more below.
What Problems Does The Vagus Nerve Contribute To?
Vagus nerve stimulation can result in all kinds of different reactions - most of which are negative. And interestingly enough, neck pain is just one of these. Other symptoms include depression and anxiety, like we mentioned earlier, but also migraines, epilepsy, inflammation, arthritis, and more. Another interesting relationship between the vagus nerve and our heart is that inflammation or irritation will prevent our body from effectively regulating heart rate - resulting in tachycardia.
As you can see, this cranial nerve interacts with a number of different systems throughout our body, making it tricky to tie symptoms to causes. Let's look at some specific conditions that could arise more in-depth.
Vagus Nerve Damage
When the vagus nerve itself gets damaged, you'll obviously deal with some pain in your neck - but other weird symptoms will present themselves as well. You'll notice issues with your voice, problems with your throat, an increased heart rate, brain fog, excessively high or low blood pressure, and gut problems. Here are some specific conditions to look for:
- Vocal cord issues that cause a hoarse, wheeze voice or loss of voice entirely
- No gag reflex at all (which is a common test for vagus nerve dysfunction), along with the inability to swallow
- Pain in the ear, along with the neck
- Excessive changes in blood pressure accompanied by a high heart rate
- Nausea & vomiting
- Pain in your gut, typically accompanied by bloating
- Decreased production of stomach acid, sometimes accompanied with dry heaving
Because this nerve extends from the brain, into the cervical region, and eventually down into our guts, there are a lot of places you could experience damage from an injured vagus nerve. The specific location and the extent of damage will determine what symptoms you feel, and how serious they are.
Gastroparesis Caused By Vagus Nerve Damage
Some professionals believe that a condition known as gastroparesis can result from vagus nerve damage. This is a digestive disorder, which results in involuntary contractions in the stomach. The result of this is that your stomach cannot properly empty itself.
Because of this, those suffering from gastroparesis experience symptoms related to poor gut health - like nausea or vomiting, particularly after eating a meal. As nasty as it sounds, you'll find that your food looks undigested altogether when it comes back up. Other noteworthy symptoms include bloating, acid reflux, pain in your abdomen, quick weight gain with no changes in diet, and fluctuations in blood sugar.
Vasovagal Syncope (Stress Triggers Related To The Vagus Nerve)
A final specific condition we want to highlight is vasovagal syncope. In some instances, the vagus nerve could react negatively to particular stressors. These could be as simple as heat stress, standing too long, straining, or more mental stress triggers like fear of bodily harm or the sight of blood. Those who deal with vasovagal syncope are at risk of fainting when exposed to certain stressors discussed above. These stressors cause an abrupt drop in heart rate and blood pressure, which opens the door for fainting episodes.
How Vagus Nerve Stimulation Can Result In Healing The Body And Mind
What's really unique about this nerve is that it doesn't just cause harm when inflamed or pinched. Stimulating it the right way can actually result in therapeutic benefits. Studies have shown that when you stimulate this nerve the right way, using proper medical devices, healing can occur. Let's take a look at a few examples.
Because this cranial nerve extends so far throughout the body, it's about stimulating it at the right spots. One such example of this is that that stimulation of the nerve can help treat depression. But that's not all. The ends of the nerve extend into your gut, and stimulating these endings can help optimize your digestive tract and clear up acid reflux, which has been shown to be exacerbated by an underactive vagus nerve.
This Isn't A Simple Fix
Now, stimulating the vagus nerve isn't as simple as getting a massage, or getting acupuncture. It's a more invasive process, that requires you to place a device inside your body that will use electrical impulses to stimulate the nerve. Usually, it gets placed under the skin of the chest, attaching to the left side of the vagus nerve. When activated, the device will send signals through the nerve and communicate with your brainstem - where it attaches. Aside from helping you dial in your nervous system, heart rate, and manage other symptoms we discussed earlier - this therapy shows promise for treating conditions like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, and cluster headaches.
Throughout the middle of this long nerve, over or under expression of it can make or break your nervous system, immune system, heart, and lung health. What makes this vagus nerve so unique and tricky to diagnose and work with is that it can contribute to poor or improved conditions depending on how it's stimulated. And oftentimes, you could be dealing with one of the ailments we've discussed thus far (mental health issues, heart/lung problems, digestive/immune system issues, etc.) and have no clue that the true culprit is this weird little nerve in the neck.
Diagnosing Problems With The Vagus Nerve
It's not easy to diagnose improper function of this nerve, because it extends so deep into our bodies and can present its symptoms in a myriad of ways. One such way your doctor may test for problems with this nerve is by assessing your gag reflex. If when stimulating it via cotton swab patients don't gag, it could indicate a problem with the nerve. Aside from that, it's a matter of assessing whether an injury took place or not, or if the patient feels a pinched nerve anywhere throughout their neck, spinal cord, or deeper in their body.
Risk Factors For Vagus Nerve Dysfunction
If you're younger and play sports, you may not immediately turn to the vagus nerve when thinking of potential injuries - you're more likely concerned with knee problems or concussions. But the reality is that vagus nerve dysfunction is commonly caused by sudden injuries caused by twisting, bending, pulling, or lifting. One common instance in which you could pinch this nerve in the neck and invite all the problems we've touched on thus far is with a whiplash injury. Even if you don't play sports, this can happen as the result of a car accident.
But trauma to the neck or nerve itself is just one way you can end up with neck pain from the vagus nerve. Studies have also found it can result from degeneration of the spine, an inevitability that comes with aging. A final risk factor we want to touch on is your posture. Poor posture isn't just unsightly, it can lead to neck pain and other stiffness throughout your body - while also increasing the risk of irritating the vagus nerve. Letting your head sag forward and developing tech neck will increase your risk of developing problems in the vagus nerve - so assess your posture, and protect your neck!
Strengthening The Vagus Nerve To Prevent Neck Pain & Improper Function
If you're concerned your vagus nerve could lead to neck pain or any of the other scary symptoms we've discussed thus far, you're likely wondering if there is anything you can do to decrease your likelihood of injuring or interrupting this nerve in the neck. The answer is yes - thankfully. You can strengthen your neck and lower the likelihood you experience problems here. A stronger neck is one that's harder to injure, and thus you'll be protecting each nerve, spinal cord, ligament, etc. throughout your neck.Let's start with some basic movements that will strengthen the muscles surrounding your vagus nerve.
Start With Neck Extension And Flexion
When it comes specifically to the vagus nerve, extension and flexion exercises will get you the most bang for your buck. These are simply moving the head forward and backward, keeping your chin tucked, and stimulating those tiny little muscles in your neck. Neck extension is when you push your head out forward, and flexion is where you bring it back in - always keep your chin tucked. These two simple exercises are a great place to start, and we recommend adding some resistance as you get your technique dialed in to really start cultivating a thick, bulletproof neck. Neck extension and flexion exercises can be easily done using either power bands or a neck harness.
Other Neck Exercises To Prevent Vagus Nerve Related Pain In The Neck
Aside from good old extension and flexion, you can draw on the other fundamental movements of the neck to create a stronger base for your head - and thus prevent injury. The neck is an incredibly versatile, fluid joint - you can move it in any direction, with a combination of rotation and extension. This means you'll need to strengthen your neck in a number of different directions and movement patterns.
Once you've gotten basic extension and flexion dialed in, move onto neck rotation exercises. Turning your head all the way to the right, holding, and then turning it back to the center, and then out to the left is a great way to start practicing rotation exercises. From there, you can get more creative and implement lateral extension exercises - where you try and touch your ears to your shoulders. No matter what neck exercises you're doing, it's always important to get the form figured out before adding any resistance. We have several video resources on our site to help you learn how to strengthen your neck safely and effectively.
Adding Resistance To Your Neck Training Exercises
To really combat neck pain and decrease your likelihood of injury at the neck, you'll eventually need to start adding some resistance to your movements. Neck training is a bit less common than other body parts - which is why as a society, we have such weak, injury-prone necks.
This means you may have never really seen someone actually train their neck before, and thus, are not of the proper tools you'll need. This will depend on how serious you want to take neck training. If you just want to get started for cheap, you can simply grab some resistance bands, a door anchor, and a neck harness.
This will attach to your head, and allow you to perform the movements discussed above with a bit of added resistance. If you have a door to anchor your bands to then you have a complete neck training setup! But if you're an athlete and really want to increase your mobility, & strength, and unlock 360-degree training for your neck - then you need the Iron Neck Training Device.
Final Thoughts On The Vagus Nerve & Neck Pain
Now, you have a better understanding of what exactly the vagus nerve is, and how it interacts within our bodies. You know that not only will a pinched or irritated vagus nerve result in neck pain, but it can also lead to myriad issues throughout our body and mind - including increased anxiety, depression, headaches & migraines, poor digestive & immune system function, increased heart rate, and more.
While all of these issues can arise as the result of inflammation in the vagus nerve, we've also explained how vagus nerve stimulation may help improve any of the areas we've mentioned above - and this is a common therapeutic practice these days. This is not a nerve you want to irritate - so to prevent the chances of these symptoms arising for you, start strengthening your neck today, and become harder to injure!