What you can expect
Before the procedure
Before surgery, your doctor will do a physical examination. You may need blood tests or other tests to make sure you don't have any health concerns that might be a problem. Your doctor may have you start taking antibiotics before surgery to prevent infection.
During the procedure
Surgery to implant the vagus nerve stimulation device can be done on an outpatient basis, though some surgeons recommend staying overnight.
The surgery usually takes an hour to an hour and a half. You may remain awake but have medication to numb the surgery area (local anesthesia), or you may be unconscious during the surgery (general anesthesia).
The surgery itself doesn't involve your brain. Two incisions are made, one on your chest or in the armpit (axillary) region, and the other on the left side of the neck.
The pulse generator is implanted in the upper left side of your chest. The device is meant to be a permanent implant, but it can be removed if necessary.
The pulse generator is about the size of a stopwatch and runs on battery power. A lead wire is connected to the pulse generator. The lead wire is guided under your skin from your chest up to your neck, where it's attached to the left vagus nerve through the second incision.
After the procedure
The pulse generator is turned on during a visit to your doctor's office a few weeks after surgery. Then it can be programmed to deliver electrical impulses to the vagus nerve at various durations, frequencies and currents. Vagus nerve stimulation usually starts at a low level and is gradually increased, depending on your symptoms and side effects.
Stimulation is programmed to turn on and off in specific cycles — such as 30 seconds on, five minutes off. You may have some tingling sensations or slight pain in your neck and temporary hoarseness when the nerve stimulation is on.
The stimulator doesn't detect seizure activity or depression symptoms. When it's turned on, the stimulator turns on and off at the intervals selected by your doctor. You can use a hand-held magnet to initiate stimulation at a different time, for example, if you sense an impending seizure.
The magnet can also be used to temporarily turn off the vagus nerve stimulation, which may be necessary when you do certain activities such as public speaking, singing or exercising, or when you're eating if you have swallowing problems.
You'll need to visit your doctor periodically to make sure that the pulse generator is working correctly and that it hasn't shifted out of position. Check with your doctor before having any medical tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which might interfere with your device.