Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a crippling inflammatory condition that affects both men and women, although women in their 30s-60s are most likely to contract the disease. RA is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the sac surrounding the joints, making them inflamed, stiff, and painful. This inflammation, while centered on the joints, can also affect many of our other body systems, such as the lungs and blood vessels, leading to additional problem such as breathing difficulties and cardiovascular disease. There are some powerful drugs to help control the symptoms and outbreaks of RA, yet the challenge is finding the right drug or combination of drugs that will work best for each individual, ideally without some of the more dangerous and damaging side effects.
Millions of dollars are spent on RA research in order to find solutions to the pain and crippling effects of RA and, while drugs continue to be the most common solution, at least one unique approach to treating the inflammation is being investigated. As so often happens with scientific discoveries, a possible solution revealed itself while scientists were conducting an experiment to minimize the damage to the brain during a stroke. Researchers discovered that inflammation in the body might be regulated in the brain, specifically by the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve has been called the wandering nerve because it begins in the brain and winds its way around and through the body, influencing most of the organ systems and calming the body after stress or intense exertion. When the vagus nerve has strong tone, the resting heart rate is low and the body responds to stress less intensely than when there is weak vagal tone. The fvagus nerve function directly related to inflammation and arthritis is its ability to reset the immune system and stop the production of proteins that cause inflammation.
Understanding the role the brain plays in our bodies’ inflammatory response opens the door for new approaches to controlling diseases like RA. One procedure that seems to show positive results is the implantation of an electrical device in the chest of RA sufferers, similar to a pacemaker, with wires attached directly to the vagus nerve in the neck. Subjects use a magnet to activate the device several times a day, and the device stimulates the vagus nerve. The stimulated nerve decreases the body’s production of proteins that create inflammatory havoc in the body.
The response to this novel approach is promising: many of the participants either reduced or eliminated their RA medication. It is unclear how available this procedure is in the United States; it would be worth asking your doctor if this procedure is an option should you suffer from any inflammatory disease. This procedure works, in part, because it draws on the body’s innate ability to restore a degree of equilibrium to its complex interwoven systems. My hope is that more research dollars are spent developing this approach to treating disease processes, rather than drugs that may have side effects almost as dire as the disease itself.
Read more about rheumatoid arthritis on the CDC website.
Read more of Virginia Eaton’s blog posts here.
Virginia Eaton is the owner of Oakhurst wellness center Class: The Body Pastiche