Recent research suggests vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) may reduce migraine intensity. VNS delivers mild electrical pulses to the brain through the vagus nerve and may be effective alone or alongside other treatments.

The vagus nerve runs from the brain to the abdomen on each side of the body. It forms a link between the brain and organs in the peripheral nervous system and plays an important role in pain.

Some research suggests stimulating the vagus nerve can relieve migraine, a headache disorder that causes moderate to severe head pain, which can present as throbbing or pulsating.

This article explains the link between the vagus nerve and migraine, whether VNS can relieve migraine symptoms, and any potential risks.

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According to a 2023 systematic review, noninvasive VNS may help to reduce migraine intensity. The review looked at gammaCore, a handheld device that delivers electrical pulses through electrodes on the skin of the neck.

The review suggests that noninvasive VNS may help to significantly decrease the number of migraine and headache days, and reduce headache intensity.

A 2018 study found that noninvasive VNS may help relieve migraine attacks, work as an acute pain reliever, and have similar results to triptans, a migraine medication.

The study concluded that noninvasive VNS may be a safe and effective treatment for migraine, either by itself or alongside other treatments, such as medications.

According to a 2020 article, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved gammaCore in 2018 for the acute treatment of migraine in adults. This device may also treat and prevent cluster headaches.

GammaCore is a handheld device that people can use themselves and is available on prescription. People can speak with a healthcare professional about obtaining the device.

A healthcare professional can also guide people on the best method for using gammaCore to relieve migraine symptoms.

Research in a 2020 article involved people using the device for 120 seconds on the right and left sides of the neck. One of the studies had people repeating this three times daily for two months.

If people are unsure about using noninvasive VNS for migraine, they can talk with a doctor and discuss other treatment options.

According to the American Headache Society, VNS can affect heart rhythm, so it may not be safe for people with heart conditions.

People should not use gammaCore at the same time as another portable device, such as a muscle stimulator, or if they have implantable medical deceives, such as a pacemaker or a hearing aid.

According to a 2020 study, noninvasive VNS is likely a safe alternative to migraine medications. However, more research is necessary to determine its safety in certain populations, such as children or pregnant people.

Potential side effects of vagus nerve stimulation devices include:

  • dizziness
  • pain or discomfort at the application site
  • redness and inflammation at the application site

There is little evidence to suggest vagus nerve issues can result in migraine, but problems with the vagus nerve may cause other symptoms, including:

Other treatment options for migraine include:

People can speak with a doctor if they want to try VNS for migraine. A doctor can check if it is a suitable treatment option for them.

A person will need to contact a doctor straight away if they have had VNS and experience any of the following:

  • constant hoarse voice
  • VNS feels painful
  • VNS affects breathing, swallowing, or causes choking
  • VNS causes a change in heart rate
  • increased drowsiness or any other changes in consciousness
  • any new or concerning changes relating to using VNS

People can also speak with a doctor if a VNS device stops working or appears to be not working correctly.

Vagus nerve stimulation may be a safe and effective treatment option for migraine. The FDA has approved a noninvasive VNS device that people can use at home to prevent or treat migraine.

Treatment results can vary for each person, and people may want to discuss an individual treatment plan with a doctor.

A person can use VNS devices alongside other treatment and management strategies, including taking pain relief medication, resting in a dark room, and applying a cool compress to the head.