Nerve Stimulation Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis

A group of researchers recently reported that it might be possible to reduce the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) through nerve stimulation. The nerve they examined was the vagus nerve, a long nerve that extends from the brainstem to the abdomen by way of several organs, including the esophagus, heart, and lungs.

Scientists have known for some time that signals that travel through the vagus nerve affect reflex circuits. One of the circuits is the inflammatory reflex, which is involved in the body’s response to inflammation. Reflex circuits also inhibit the production of tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a chemical that plays a major role in regulating the inflammatory response in RA.

In a new study, the researchers implanted a vagus nerve stimulating device in two groups of patients — seven with epilepsy and 17 with RA. The epilepsy group experienced declines in certain cytokines and in TNF, but the most dramatic results appeared in the RA group.

The researchers discovered that vagus nerve stimulation considerably inhibited TNF production for up to 84 days, leading to a significant improvement in disease severity in the RA patients. In some patients, medications had failed to have any notable effect. Also, the doctors reported that the treatment had caused no serious side effects.

“These results establish that vagus nerve stimulation targeting the inflammatory reflex modulates TNF production and reduces inflammation in humans,” the researchers concluded.

“These findings suggest that it is possible to use mechanism-based neuromodulating devices in the experimental therapy of RA and possibly other autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases.”

This article was published in the June/July 2017 issue of Pain-Free Living. Subscribe.

Joseph Gustaitis is a freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area.

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