Vagal Nerve Stimulation

Vagal nerve stimulation is a treatment used to reduce the frequency and intensity of seizures when medications aren't effective.

The vagus nerve is one of many nerves that carry messages to and from the brain. It helps regulate internal organs such as the heart and stomach. Nerve fibers within the vagus nerve are connected to the part of the brain believed to be responsible for producing seizures.

This procedure involves placing a small electric stimulator in the neck around the vagus nerve and a power source near the armpit or chest. The device works like a heart pacemaker to stimulate the left vagus nerve. It automatically sends intermittent electrical signals to the brain and can be manually activated to attempt to interrupt a seizure that's just starting.

At UCSF Medical Center, our neurologists and neurosurgeons have expertise in implanting vagal nerve stimulators to treat seizures caused by diseases such as epilepsy.

Who May Benefit

Patients who lose consciousness during complex partial seizures or generalized seizures, and whose seizures are not being controlled by medication, may benefit from vagal nerve stimulation.

This treatment can result in fewer or less severe seizures, although not everyone sees improvement. In all cases, you'll need to continue to take anti-epileptic medication as you did before the stimulator was inserted. In some cases, your neurologist may recommend that the use of medication be reduced a few months after a vagal nerve stimulator is implanted.


Before inserting a vagal nerve stimulator, our doctors and nurses will thoroughly evaluate your medical condition. They will ask you about your medical history as well as your immediate family's medical history. If your doctor has sent us your medical records, we will review this information. Please mention any medications you take, including over-the-counter medications, vitamins, nutritional supplements and herbal remedies.

Your neurologist will confirm the diagnosis of epilepsy or other disorder causing seizures, and may ask you to undergo imaging tests such as:


The vagal nerve stimulator is inserted during an operation that takes one to two hours. A cable is inserted to connect the stimulator with a nerve in the neck. The stimulator is programmed to stimulate the nerve at regular intervals. The battery in the stimulator will need to be replaced about every 10 years. This can be done during a simple procedure, which doesn't require a hospital stay, using local anesthesia.

You may experience some tingling in the neck or hoarseness during the stimulation pulses. Most patients get used to these feelings over time.

Your doctors will provide follow-up care to ensure that your vagal nerve stimulator is working properly and is helping to control your seizures.


Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

Related Information

How to Reach Us

For more information, please contact one of our epilepsy nurse specialists:

Maritza Lopez, (415) 353-2143

Mariann Ward, (415) 353-2347

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Neurology and Neurosurgery

Epilepsy Center
400 Parnassus Ave., Eighth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94143
Phone: (415) 353-2437
Fax: (415) 353-2837

400 Parnassus Ave., Eighth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94143
Phone: (415) 353-7500
Fax: (415) 353-2889

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