Imagine being in so much pain, even your skin hurt; that the mere sensation of touching sent off a wave of agony through your body.
Many people live with this incredible discomfort daily and if you have fibromyalgia or know someone suffering with fibro, then you know the type of pain I am talking about.
Sometimes it may seem like there is no hope for a regular, full life while experiencing the crippling effects of fibromyalgia. But one woman’s journey could change your outlook on the syndrome.
A Life With Fibromyalgia
Jean Hasser, a former high school science teacher, is one of the estimated 5 million Americans diagnosed with chronic pain and fibromyalgia.
Her suffering began slowly, from knee pain during pregnancy, down to her ankles, then to her hips and smaller joints and eventually to everywhere – including her skin.
Moving was painful, as was touching. She experienced severe brain-fog and was later diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome(IBS), a common occurrence in fibromyalgia patients.
The fibro became unbearable and Jean had to leave her job and spent most of her time bedridden.
She tried different medications to ease her symptoms, including Cymbalta and Lyrica, though neither had positive effects. Tai-chi helped to calm her down, but it did not reduce the pain. Tramadol seemed like a lifesaver, but at a harmful 16 tramadol a day, Jean turned her attention to Dr. Natelson.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Reverse Fibromyalgia
Dr. Natelson, neurologist, has been treating fibro and chronic fatigue syndrome since 2010. His work and study with vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has caught the attention of many Americans suffering from the syndromes, including Jean.
He conducted a trial study with patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia using VNS and by the end, 45% of subjects no longer met the criteria for fibro.
“The results blew me away. I have never seen an effect as powerful as this,” Dr. Natelson said.
The fascinating ending to the study concludes that significant improvement occurred during the first three months, but actually increased over time as well.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
It is the tenth longest cranial nerve and enters the brain at the medulla and travels down through the chest cavity and into the abdomen. The nerve helps relay information from your body to your brain.
A test on reduced heart rate variability (HRV) has suggested that an underactive vagus nerve could be the culprit to an unstable sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight system) in chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Reduced HRV has been linked to increased pain, poor sleep, and cognitive problems in both fibro and chronic fatigue.
How Vagus Nerve Stimulation Works
While other techniques stimulate the brain top down, the vagus nerve stimulation stimulates from bottom up. This technique upregulates the serotoninergic and noradrenergic neurons activity in the brain, helping to generate neurotransmitters.
By using VNS, the cranial nerves in our brain stem that connect to the limbic cortex and monaminergic nuclei directly are stimulated. Both of these areas of the brain regulate emotion, mood, and autonomic nervous system functioning.
When the nerve is stimulated like this, it is believed the neurotransmitters turn on a pain prohibiting pathway in the brain.
It is an approved method of treating epilepsy and resistant depression. VNS has also been linked to reducing migraines and pain, so it was natural that Dr. Natelson would try its effects on fibromyalgia.
A Life After Fibromyalgia
VNS requires an implanted electrode in the neck through a surgical procedure that would be connected to a battery near the collarbone.
Jean went through with this surgery in 2008 and describes it as a fairly touchy surgery. They turned on the stimulator almost a week after she had it implanted, which turns on the stimulation every ten minutes.
Every ten minutes then, Jean felt the muscles in her neck tighten and she would cough. She says it took about six weeks to adjust to the surgically rooted stimulator.
It’s an invasive process that may sound too complicated, but fibromyalgia can create a complicated lifestyle, and Jean is glad she tried this treatment.
The first to disappear was her brain fog and her short-term memory problems completely disappeared after the surgery. Soon after, the severe radiating nerve and joint pain dissipated. After a year, she admits to feeling “reborn”.
The End Results
As of now, Vagus Nerve Stimulation is being researched through the US in its effects against pain and more options are being developed, such as a wearable ear piece to stimulate the vagus nerve.
There is no denying that VNS has changed the lives of Dr. Natelson’s patients, including Jean. Since the stimulation, she has been able to return to work, exercise and has even taken up hiking. She now reaches out to those in pain from fibromyalgia and offers hope that a full life can be lived