Neuroanatomic and clinical correspondences: acupuncture and vagus nerve stimulation

J Altern Complement Med. 2014 Apr;20(4):233-40. doi: 10.1089/acm.2012.1022. Epub 2013 Dec 20.


Background: The use of surgically implanted electronic devices for vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is expanding in contemporary allopathic medical practice as a treatment option for selected clinical conditions, such as epilepsy, depression, tremor, and pain conditions, that are unresponsive to standard pharmacologic interventions. Although VNS device surgeries are considered minimally invasive, they are costly and have surgical and device-related risks; they can also cause serious adverse effects from excessive vagus nerve stimulation.

Objectives: For millennia, acupuncturists have treated those same clinical conditions by piquering acupoints that are located proximate to the sternocleidomastoid muscle site where the VNS device is implanted on the vagus nerve. The hypothesis of this study is that these acupuncture points produce clinical benefits through stimulation of the vagus nerve and/or its branches in the head and neck region.

Methods: By using reference anatomic and acupuncture texts, classical and extraordinary acupoints in the head and neck region were identified that are anatomically proximate to vagus nerve pathways there, where the VNS electrode is surgically implanted. The clinical indications of these acupuncture points, as described in the acupuncture reference texts, were examined for similarities to those of VNS.

Results: This analysis demonstrated marked correspondences of the indications for those lateral head and neck acupoints to the clinical effects (beneficial and adverse) documented for the VNS device in the medical literature. This clinical correspondence, in conjunction with the anatomic proximity of the acupoints to the vagus nerve in the lateral neck, strongly suggests that vagus nerve (and hence the autonomic nervous system) stimulation is fundamental in producing the clinical effects of the acupoints.

Conclusion: By having anatomic access to the vagus nerve and parasympathetic chain that permits electrical stimulation of those nerves in clinical practice, acupuncture may offer a less costly and safer alternative to implanted VNS devices for treating medically refractory epilepsy, tremor, depression, and pain conditions.

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Therapy / methods*
  • Humans
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation / methods*