Vagus nerve stimulation for primary headache disorders: An anatomical review to explain a clinical phenomenon

Cephalalgia. 2019 Aug;39(9):1180-1194. doi: 10.1177/0333102419833076. Epub 2019 Feb 20.


Background: Non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve has been proposed as a new neuromodulation therapy to treat primary headache disorders, as the vagus nerve is hypothesized to modulate the headache pain pathways in the brain. Vagus nerve stimulation can be performed by placing an electrode on the ear to stimulate the tragus nerve, which contains about 1% of the vagus fibers. Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (nVNS) conventionally refers to stimulation of the cervical branch of the vagus nerve, which is made up entirely of vagal nerve fibers. While used interchangeably, most of the research to date has been performed with nVNS or an implanted vagus nerve stimulation device. However, the exact mechanism of action of nVNS remains hypothetical and no clear overview of the effectiveness of nVNS in primary headache disorders is available.

Methods: In the present study, the clinical trials that investigated the effectiveness, tolerability and safety of nVNS in primary headache disorders were systematically reviewed. The second part of this study reviewed the central connections of the vagus nerve. Papers on the clinical use of nVNS and the anatomical investigations were included based on predefined criteria, evaluated, and results were reported in a narrative way.

Results: The first part of this review shows that nVNS in primary headache disorders is moderately effective, safe and well-tolerated. Regarding the anatomical review, it was reported that fibers from the vagus nerve intertwine with fibers from the trigeminal, facial, glossopharyngeal and hypoglossal nerves, mostly in the trigeminal spinal tract. Second, the four nuclei of the vagus nerve (nuclei of the solitary tract, nucleus ambiguus, spinal nucleus of the trigeminal nerve and dorsal motor nucleus (DMX)) show extensive interconnections. Third, the efferents from the vagal nuclei that receive sensory and visceral input (i.e. nuclei of the solitary tract and spinal nucleus of the trigeminal nerve) mainly course towards the main parts of the neural pain matrix directly or indirectly via other vagal nuclei.

Conclusion: The moderate effectiveness of nVNS in treating primary headache disorders can possibly be linked to the connections between the trigeminal and vagal systems as described in animals.

Keywords: Afferent pathways; anatomy; efferent pathways; headache disorders; histology; vagus nerve; vagus nerve stimulation.