On social media, rubs and massages that “tone” one of our body’s longest nerves have been claimed to remedy anxiety and other psychological ailments. However, it lacks robust scientific backing.
There’s a sudden increase in popularity of vagus nerve massage, especially on social media. Some of the viral videos on YouTube and other social media channels recommend different types of rubs using a toothbrush to “tone” or “reset” the vagus nerve behind the ear. The vagal nerve fibres, which run from the brain to the abdomen, have been anointed by these influencers as the key to reducing anxiety, regulating the nervous system, and helping the body to relax.
First Check reached out to Dr. (Lt Gen) CS Narayanan, HOD - Department of Neurology at Manipal Hospital, New Delhi, India, to understand if there’s any scientific basis to these trending messages on social media. “While there’s some evidence suggesting that vagus nerve stimulation with special devices may have positive effects on a variety of neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, migraine, and depression, the idea of massaging it with a toothbrush for mental health benefits lacks robust scientific support. Vagus nerve stimulation is a complex process that typically involves medical devices,” he explains.
The term “vagus nerve” is actually shorthand for thousands of fibres. They are organised into two bundles that run from the brain stem down through each side of the neck and into the torso, branching outward to touch our internal organs. The vagus nerve, the longest of the 12 cranial nerves, picks up information about how the organs are functioning and also sends information from the brain stem back to the body, helping to control digestion, heart rate, voice, moods, and the immune system.
Scientists first began examining the vagus nerve in the late 1800s to investigate whether stimulating it could be a potential treatment for epilepsy. It was later that they discovered that a side effect of activating the nerve was an improvement in mood. “Pros of vagus nerve stimulation include potential anxiety reduction and mood improvement. However, DIY methods like using a toothbrush may carry risks, such as injury or infection. Unsupervised stimulation of this nerve manually in the neck can also lead to disastrous consequences including heart block. Therefore, always consult a healthcare professional before attempting such practices, and consider evidence-based approaches for mental health,” notes Dr Narayanan.
Given that mental health conditions vary widely among individuals, what works for one person may not work for another. Researchers are still examining how the nerve can affect psychiatric disorders, among other conditions, informs Dr Narayanan. “For wellness, one should try to maintain high vagus nerve activity through mindfulness, exercise, and paced breathing,” he says.
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