6 Warning Signs of Vagus Nerve Damage

Vagus nerve damage is an often-overlooked issue that can cause a wide range of debilitating symptoms. The vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the abdomen, plays an important role in controlling many functions in the body. 

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Damage to this nerve can have far-reaching effects, leading to physical, mental, and emotional problems. 

In this article, we will discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatments for vagus nerve damage to help those affected understand their condition better and find the best course of action for managing their symptoms.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves in the body. Cranial nerves are paired nerves in the back of the brain that branch out throughout the body. They help link the brain with other parts of the body.

Some cranial nerves control the sensory functions while others control the motor functions; however, the vagal nerves or vagus nerve control both.

The vagus nerve has multiple branches that connect to various organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines. It serves as a communication pathway between these organs and the brain.

It’s also the main nerve that controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls specific body functions, including heart rate, digestion, and the immune system.

It primarily regulates rest and digestive functions.

This should not be confused with the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the fight or flight response.

While both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems belong to the autonomic nervous system (a network of nerves that control unconscious processes), their functions are quite different.

Damage to the vagus nerve can disrupt its functions and lead to various symptoms and health issues.

Vagus nerve diagram. parasympathetic and central nervous system function. signals from brain to internal organs in the human body. spinal cord and nerves connections flat medical vector illustration.

Causes of Vagus Nerve Damage

Vagus nerve damage can have several potential causes. Here are the most common factors that can lead to this type of nerve damage:


Certain surgical procedures may carry the risk of damaging the vagus nerve unintentionally. 

Surgeries such as thyroidectomy (thyroid removal), cardiac surgeries, lung surgeries, and even gastrointestinal surgeries carry a risk of unintentional injury to this sensitive nerve. 

Surgeons take great care during these operations; however, sometimes accidental damage can occur due to anatomical complexities.


Physical trauma resulting from accidents, falls, sports injuries, or penetrating wounds can potentially harm the vagus nerve. 


Some infections have been associated with causing inflammation and subsequent damage to nerves throughout the body, including the vagus nerve. 

Conditions such as Lyme disease and viral infections like herpes simplex virus can potentially affect this cranial nerve.

Autoimmune disorders

Conditions characterized by an overactive immune response against one’s body tissues can lead to inflammation and damage to various organs and nerves—including the vagus nerve—due to misguided attacks on healthy tissue.


High blood sugar levels associated with uncontrolled diabetes can gradually impair nerves throughout the body, including the vagus nerve, leading to reduced functionality and potential long-term complications.

Chronic illnesses

Various chronic medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis have been linked to increased risks of developing neuropathy affecting different nerves within your body—including possibly impacting your vagus nerve function.


In some cases, external pressure or compression on the vagus nerve can result in damage. 

This could occur due to tumors, cysts, aneurysms, or even structural abnormalities within your body that put undue pressure on the nerve.

Chronic Stress

Long-term exposure to chronic stress can negatively impact various bodily systems, including the vagus nerve. 

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which opposes the parasympathetic system regulated by the vagus nerve. 

Prolonged activation of this “fight or flight” response can impair vagal tone and disrupt essential bodily processes like digestion, heart rate regulation, and blood pressure.

Symptoms of Vagus Nerve Damage

Vagus nerve damage varies depending on the specific location and extent of the injury. Nonetheless, the symptoms can be many since the nerve is too long and runs through various body systems.

Common signs of vagus nerve damage include:

1. Digestive Issues:

One of the primary roles of the vagus nerve is to control digestion. Damage to this nerve can lead to several digestive problems, such as:

  • Gastroparesis: Gastroparesis is a condition that affects the stomach muscles and the nerves that control them. Your stomach muscles normally contract to push the food through the digestive system. However, when you have gastroparesis, these muscles don’t work properly. This can cause food to stay in your stomach for too long and not digest properly, resulting in symptoms like nausea, vomiting, bloating, and feeling full after consuming only small amounts of food.
  • Heartburn or Acid Reflux: Vagus nerve damage may weaken the lower esophageal sphincter muscle responsible for preventing acid reflux.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Vagus nerve damage may also contribute to or worsen IBS symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.

2. Cardiovascular Complications

Since the vagus nerve also plays a crucial role in regulating heart rate and blood pressure levels, any impairment can manifest through various cardiovascular symptoms such as:

  • Low Blood Pressure: 

Vagus nerve damage may disrupt communication between this cranial nerve and the heart’s electrical conduction system. As a result, abnormal signaling occurs within pacemaker cells responsible for initiating each heartbeat (SA node).

This disruption leads to a slower-than-normal heart rate (bradycardia), subsequently causing decreased cardiac output and contributing to hypotension.

  • Changes in Heart Rate:

One of the most significant symptoms of vagus nerve damage is changes in heart rate. The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in regulating the heart rate by transmitting signals between the brain and the heart. When this nerve is damaged or disrupted, it can lead to various heart rate abnormalities.

One common condition is bradycardia, which refers to a slow heart rate. In bradycardia, the heart beats less than 60 times per minute, compared to the normal range of 60 to 100 beats per minute. This can result in symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, and fainting.

On the other hand, vagus nerve damage can also cause tachycardia, which is an abnormally fast heart rate. Tachycardia can lead to palpitations, rapid heartbeat, and a sense of discomfort in the chest. These symptoms can be quite distressing and may require medical intervention.

It is important to note that heart rate changes can also indicate other underlying medical conditions. Therefore, if you are experiencing any significant changes in your heart rate, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

3. Respiratory Problems

Respiratory problems are another common symptom of vagus nerve damage. The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in controlling the muscles involved in breathing, so any damage or dysfunction can lead to respiratory difficulties. 

Individuals with vagus nerve damage may experience shortness of breath, a feeling of heaviness in the chest, or an inability to take deep breaths. These respiratory problems can range from mild to severe, depending on the extent of nerve damage.

In some cases, vagus nerve damage can also result in vocal cord dysfunction, causing difficulties with speaking or hoarseness in the voice. This can further contribute to respiratory problems, as proper vocal cord function is necessary for the coordination of breathing and speech.

It is also worth noting that vagus nerve damage can impact other respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Individuals with these conditions may experience exacerbated symptoms or find it more challenging to manage their respiratory health.

4. Difficulty Swallowing or Speaking

Another symptom of vagus nerve damage is difficulty swallowing or speaking

You may experience a feeling of food getting stuck in your throat or have difficulty forming words or speaking clearly.

This can significantly impact your quality of life and communication abilities.

5. Loss of the gag reflex

The gag reflex, also known as the pharyngeal reflex, is an automatic protective mechanism designed to prevent choking or aspiration of foreign substances into our lungs.

When certain areas at the back of our throat are stimulated by objects like food, liquids, or other irritants, this reflex triggers a series of contractions in specific muscles involved in swallowing and breathing.

The vagus nerve provides sensory information from areas such as the throat and back part of the tongue to alert the brain about potential threats or obstructions.

When there’s damage to one or both branches of the vagus nerve supplying these sensory fibers related to gagging sensation transmission, it can lead to impaired functioning of the gag reflex.

6. Vasovagal syncope

Vasovagal syncope is a common fainting episode due to a sudden drop in blood pressure.

As discussed earlier, the vagus nerve plays a significant role in regulating heart rate and blood pressure.
When the vagus nerve is damaged, it can lead to vasovagal syncope episodes, which can greatly impact an individual’s quality of life.

Symptoms of vasovagal syncope include dizziness and lightheadedness, blurred vision, pale skin, sweating, nausea, and fainting spells.

Vagus nerve diagram. parasympathetic and central nervous system function. signals from brain to internal organs in the human body. spinal cord and nerves connections flat medical vector illustration.

Treatment Options for Vagus Nerve Damage


Medications are commonly prescribed to manage symptoms associated with vagus nerve damage. 

They aim to alleviate pain and discomfort while promoting healing. For example, anti-inflammatory drugs may reduce inflammation around the damaged area and relieve pressure on the affected nerves.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can prove beneficial by helping patients regain control over their affected muscles and improve overall mobility. 

Therapists use exercises targeting specific muscle groups connected to the vagus nerve to stimulate reinnervation — a process where new neural connections are established between damaged nerves and muscle fibers.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS):

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is an approved treatment method used for various conditions like epilepsy and depression that involve altered brain activity due to vagal dysfunction or imbalance. 

A small device is implanted under the skin, which delivers mild electrical impulses directly onto the vagus nerve at regular intervals, aiming to regulate its function effectively.


In severe cases of vagal nerve damage that do not respond well to other treatments, surgical interventions might be considered. 

Surgical procedures like nerve grafts or nerve transfers involve replacing or redirecting damaged nerves with healthy ones from other parts of the body. 

These techniques aim to restore neural connections and improve functionality.

Natural Remedies for Vagus Nerve Damage

  • Deep Breathing Exercises: Deep breathing exercises can stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation. Take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Focus on extending your exhales longer than your inhales to activate the calming effects of the vagus nerve.
  • Meditation: Engaging in regular meditation or mindfulness practices can also positively impact overall nervous system function by reducing stress levels. A reduction in stress hormones like cortisol will increase a state of calmness, which can indirectly support vagus nerve health.
  • Cold Therapy: Applying cold therapy to areas where you suspect compression on the vagus nerve might relieve symptoms associated with damage or inflammation along its pathway. Use an ice pack wrapped in a thin cloth for short periods.
  • Acupuncture: This traditional Chinese medicine practice involves inserting fine needles into specific points on the body to stimulate energy flow and restore balance within systems like nerves and blood circulation. Seek an experienced acupuncturist who can target points related to the vagus nerve.
  • Dietary Changes: Incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your diet can support nerve regeneration and overall nervous system health. Consume foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts and flaxseeds. Additionally, adding turmeric, ginger, green leafy vegetables, and berries to your meals can provide antioxidants that help combat inflammation.

Herbal Supplements

Several herbal supplements possess neuroprotective properties that may aid in repairing damaged nerves.

For example:

  • Ashwagandha: Known for its adaptogenic qualities, ashwagandha supports the body’s ability to handle stress, reduce inflammation, and enhance nerve regeneration.
  • Holy Basil: This herb acts as an adaptogen, reducing stress and promoting mental well-being. It may also help protect against nerve damage caused by oxidative stress.

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Final Thoughts

The vagus nerve plays a vital role in regulating various bodily functions and any damage to this important nerve can have significant consequences.

Recognizing the signs of vagus nerve damage is crucial for early diagnosis and prompt treatment.

From gastrointestinal issues to heart irregularities and impaired communication between the brain and body, these symptoms should not be ignored.

Seeking medical attention when experiencing any of these warning signs is essential for proper evaluation and management.

In addition to conventional treatments, natural remedies can also improve your symptoms and promote recovery.

That being said, various factors can contribute to vagus nerve damage, and treating the root cause is always essential to prevent further damage.

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