Vagus nerve implications in Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) treatment

May 16, 2017   |   Evidence in Integrative Healthcare

What if addressing diseases like rheumatoid arthritis started with the brain and nerves instead of pharmaceuticals? A fascinating article published in Business Insider, charts the experiments and clinical trial patients of neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey, MD who accidentally discovered human inflammatory control methods that don’t involve drugs.

While injecting rat brains with anti-inflammatory drugs to study the effects of post-stroke inflammation, he was surprised to find other organs benefited from this besides the brain. He hit on a hypothesis that the brain might be using the nervous system to target the rest of the body. Months later, he localized this control to the vagus nerve. By 2011, he had research showing high vagal tone better regulates inflammatory conditions preventing diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. He then moved into the realm of rheumatoid arthritis to test the generalized inflammation that may be affected. With the right stimulation to the vagus nerve, study subjects experienced dramatic results: decreased joint pain and increased range of motion while lowering or completely stopping chemotherapy drugs normally needed to control rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment required the patient to receive an implanted device similar to a pacemaker, in the base of the cervical spine. Treatments were applied by the patient in 30-second intervals, using a magnet to swipe across the neck six times a day. Minor side effects included temporary shaking of the voice while magnet is applied. Relatively higher risk is associated with insertion of the device. Still, some patients reported 100% remission of RA, while others are on dramatically lower doses of chemotherapy medications. All subjects reported substantial benefits including decreased pain and increased ROM, lifestyle improvements, and social re-engagement.

The potential for treatment of RA without the use of pharmaceutical intervention should be on the radar of all clinicians, including integrative healthcare providers. As more research on this treatment becomes available, IH providers may be able to advise patients to contact their rheumatologist regarding vagus nerve stimulation treatment for RA.