Explains what vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is, how it works, what are the side effects, and what to think about before having the treatment.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a type of surgery that can treat mental health problems. Rarely, doctors may use it to treat:
Some research shows that VNS can reduce the symptoms of severe depression that hasn't been helped by other treatments. This is sometimes called 'treatment-resistant' depression.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends using VNS for treatment-resistant depression. But their guidelines state that it should only happen with certain conditions, including the following:
VNS may help to improve your mood and reduce your symptoms of depression. Some people can feel a little better straight after surgery. Others may take 6 months or longer before noticing any improvements in their symptoms.
But VNS it will not work for everyone. And there is limited evidence on the benefits of this treatment.
Possible side effects of VNS are:
There is also a small risk of infection or other complications from the surgery. Your doctor should talk to you about the risks and side effects before you give your consent to have VNS.
If you experience side effects, your doctor may be able to reduce how intense or frequent the electrical pulses are. This might help to reduce any side effects that you experience. Side effects may also get better over time.
If you ever have an MRI scan, you should always tell them about your VNS device. It may also be help to tell staff if you need to go through airport security.
If your doctor recommends that you have VNS, these are some questions you could ask to learn more. Or you could ask someone you trust, or an advocate, to ask these questions for you:
It might feel frustrating or disappointing if a treatment such as VNS doesn't work for you. Especially if you feel like you have tried lots of different things already.
Try to not to blame yourself. And remember that different things work for different people. You could also talk to your doctor about other options you could try. Or see our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem.
This information was published in June 2022. We will revise it in 2025.
References and bibliography available on request.
If you want to reproduce this content, see our permissions and licensing page.