The medieval Latin word vagus means literally "Wandering" (the words vagrant, vagabond, and vague come from the same root). Sometimes the branches are spoken of in the plural and are thus called vagi (/ˈveɪˌgаɪ/) (VĀ-gī). The vagus is also called the pneumogastric nerve since it innervates both the lungs and the stomach.
The right vagus nerve gives rise to the right recurrent laryngeal nerve which hooks around the right subclavian artery and ascends into the neck between the trachea and esophagus. The right vagus then crosses anteriorly to the right subclavian artery and runs posterior to the superior vena cava and descends posterior to the right main bronchus and contributes to cardiac, pulmonary and esophageal plexuses. It forms the posterior vagal trunk at lower part of esophagus and enters diaphragm through esophageal hiatus.
The left vagus nerve enters the thorax between left common carotid artery and left subclavian artery and descends on the aortic arch. It gives rise to the left recurrent laryngeal nerve which hooks around the aortic arch to the left of the ligamentum arteriosum and ascends between the trachea and esophagus. The left vagus further gives off thoracic cardiac branches, breaks up into pulmonary plexus, continues into the esophageal plexus and enters the abdomen as the anterior vagal trunk in the esophageal hiatus of the diaphragm.
The vagus nerve supplies motor parasympathetic fibers to all the organs except the suprarenal (adrenal) glands, from the neck down to the second segment of the transverse colon. The vagus also controls a few skeletal muscles, namely:
This means that the vagus nerve is responsible for such varied tasks as heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and quite a few muscle movements in the mouth, including speech (via the recurrent laryngeal nerve) and keeping the larynx open for breathing. It also receives some sensation from the outer ear, via the Auricular branch (also known as Alderman's nerve) and part of the meninges.
At this location Otto Loewi first proved that nerves secrete substances called neurotransmitters which have effects on receptors in target tissues. Loewi described the substance released by the vagus nerve as vagusstoff, which was later found to be acetylcholine.
Drugs that inhibit the muscarinic cholinergic receptor (anticholinergics) such as atropine and scopolamine are called vagolytic because they inhibit the action of the vagus nerve on the heart, gastrointestinal tract and other organs. Anticholinergic drugs increase heart rate and are used to treat bradycardia (slow heart rate) and asystole, which is when the heart has no electrical activity. Anticholinergic drugs relax the detrusor muscle and cause constipation which again involves the vagus nerve.
Bulimics and anorexics have high vagal activity which is associated with the arrhythmias seen in these patients.
A degree of intermittent VNS can be achieved by daily breathing exercises (for example, Pranayama) over a period of several weeks. In some patients, such proactive relaxation exercises have been found to correlate with lower blood pressure and lower heart rate and more stable moods. The Valsalva maneuver may activate the vagus nerve and is a "natural" way to achieve the same effect in some patients. Patients with atrial fibrillation, supraventricular tachycardia and other illnesses may be trained to perform the valsalva maneuver (or find it for themselves).
Vagus nerve blocking (VBLOC) therapy, similar to VNS but only used during the day, has caused 31 obese participants in a six month open label trial involving three medical centers in Australia, Mexico and Norway to lose an average of nearly 15 percent of their excess weight. A one year 300 participant double blind phase II trial has begun.
Vagotomy (cutting of the vagus nerve) is a now-obsolete therapy that was performed for peptic ulcer disease. Vagotomy is currently being researched as a less invasive alternative weight loss procedure to gastric bypass surgery. The procedure curbs the feeling of hunger and is sometimes performed in conjunction with putting bands on patients' stomachs, resulting in average weight loss of 43% at six months with diet and exercise. Five pencil-sized scars are the result of the procedure.
Activation of the vagus nerve typically leads to a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, or both. This occurs commonly in the setting of gastrointestinal illness such as viral gastroenteritis or acute cholecystitis, or in response to other stimuli, including carotid sinus massage, Valsalva maneuver, or pain from any cause, particularly having blood drawn. When the circulatory changes are great enough, vasovagal syncope results. Relative dehydration tends to amplify these responses.
Excessive activation of the vagal nerve during emotional stress, which is a parasympathetic overcompensation of a strong sympathetic nervous system response associated with stress, can also cause vasovagal syncope because of a sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate. Vasovagal syncope affects young children and women more often. It can also lead to temporary loss of bladder control under moments of extreme fear.
Research has shown that women who have complete transection of the spinal cord can experience orgasms through the vagus nerve, which can go from the uterus, cervix and probably the vagina to the brain.