Few people have heard of the vagus nerve, and even fewer are familiar with what it does. We have also heard of the many benefits of massage, but is there a close connection to the duties of the vagus nerve? What is it about soft tissue manipulation that slows us down, boosts our spirits, and reduces stress?
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The tenth cranial nerves, more commonly known as the vagus nerves, are the primary nerves of our parasympathetic nervous system. They are also the autonomic nervous system’s longest, most complex nerves. While the body is resting, the vagus nerves help the parasympathetic system regulate specific body functions.
As a side note: the nervous system splits into the central nervous system (our brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (the nerve fibers that exit between the bones of the spine). The peripheral system contains the somatic and autonomic nervous systems, the last of which also divides into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The autonomic system houses the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic system, so that is where we’ll be focusing today.
Where is the Vagus Nerve Located?
The vagal nerve starts inside the skull at the lower part of the brainstem, known as the medulla oblongata. It has left and right branches, both of which exit the base of the head to travel down the sides of the neck and run through our chest down the center of our torso. There it settles in the abdomen on the stomach near the diaphragm.
What Does the Vagus Nerve Do?
The vagus nerves send messages and signals between the brain and the organs of the digestive tract, respiratory system, hormonal (endocrine) system, and some throat and facial muscles.
The vagus nerve has several functions:
- Gives movement to the muscles that speak and swallow
- Provides the sensation of taste for the back part of the tongue
- Resolves inflammation by releasing certain proteins
- Releases neurotransmitters (chemicals that send specific messages to the brain)
- Regulates the activity of and processes sensory information from, the
- Swallowing and speech
- Heartbeat and blood pressure
- Small intestine and part of the large intestine
- Nutrient absorption
Why is the Vagus Nerve Important in Massage?
Our nervous system is constantly analyzing sensory information to signal safety or danger. Experiencing physical or mental stress can kick our sympathetic system into overdrive, flooding the body with high cortisol and adrenaline levels.
The sympathetic system, more commonly known as our fight-or-flight reflex, heightens our awareness, increases blood flow to our lungs and skeletal muscles, and activates our organs to respond quickly. This stress response prepares our body to escape danger or take action.
The basis of any massage is intention and touch; the touch from a therapist raises our conscious awareness of that area of contact. By bringing attention to your soft tissues manually, your brain will scan your body to assess which section of the autonomic nervous system needs to take charge.
Generally speaking, and depending on your private history, the brain will understand that there is no danger and will signal safety to the body. This sets the parasympathetic system into motion by:
- decreasing the heartbeat,
- producing more natural breathing,
- digesting food to increase nutrient absorption,
- healing injuries,
- processing memories and experiences,
- and regulating mood.
The vagus nerve is what allows us to access a state of relaxation.
Why Can’t I Relax During My Massage?
Not everyone is at ease with touch; our brain might be overreacting, or our nerves could be hypersensitive. Genetics, certain diseases, and unaddressed psychological trauma are the typical reasons for that.
Some people are born with an uneven distribution of touch receptors in the skin. Others develop physical sensitivities through:
- Bodily injury that damages the nerves
- Pain conditions (nerve root compression, migraines)
- Systemic diseases (diabetes, hypothyroidism)
- Infectious diseases (HIV, shingles, hepatitis C)
- Toxins (alcohol, some chemotherapy drugs, and immunosuppressants)
- Genetic disorders and degenerative nerve diseases (Charcot-Marie-Tooth, Parkinson’s)
Our living environments have a lot to do with our psychological health. Traumatic experiences from any point in our lives will rewrite how our brains operate. Rewiring how we physically and mentally respond to the world requires extensive focused work and the desire for change.
It can be wildly uncomfortable to accept touch when you’re unpracticed to being “touchy-feely” or receiving contact on or near your throat, thighs, stomach, or any area that triggers flashbacks to unpleasant events.
Whatever the cause for skin or psychological sensitivity, learning to activate our vagus nerve can help decrease some stress that comes with living with these sensitivities.
How Can I Activate My Vagus Nerve?
Luckily, massage isn’t the only way to improve vagal nerve function. Take it from Dr. Shakib in the following video:
We can access the benefits of the vagus nerve in multiple ways:
- Laughing, humming, gargling
- Practicing tai chi or any form of exercise that alternates your heart rate
- Maintaining an anti-inflammatory diet
- Proper breathing techniques
- Cold water rinsing, using an ice pack over your face, dipping your face into cold water
The vagus nerve is the key that unlocks the benefits of massage because it extends so far in the body and provides the bulk of the work that the parasympathetic system oversees.
Do yourself a favor, make yourself laugh every day, and sing your little heart out on your commute. Your mental health will thank you.
Message from Dr.Shakib
This blog was contributed by Lex Alvarado:
Lex Alvarado has over 14 years of experience working with patients, collaborating care to improve pain and posture.She is certified in Active Release Technique (ART) and neuromuscular massage (CNMT) and is a Board certified massage therapist (CAMTC). She is currently on the rehab. team at Irvine Spine and Wellness Center. When you are ready, contact us online or reach the team at 949-552-5535