Neurostimulation to treat RA

Researchers are studying the potential benefits and risks of vagus nerve stimulation for treating RA. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that is responsible for the regulation of body functions, like digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as certain reflexes, like coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting. When the vagus nerve is stimulated using electrodes, it blocks the release of tumor necrosis factor (TNF). TNF is a substance produced in excess by the immune systems of people with inflammatory arthritis, leading to inflammation of the joints and destruction of healthy tissue.  

In a recent study that was the first to examine vagus nerve stimulation in people with RA, 14 people were implanted with either a neurostimulator or a sham device (a placebo version of a medical device). Six of those people were treated with vagus nerve stimulation once a day for 12 weeks. Among participants who received daily vagus nerve stimulation, four out of six showed improvement in RA symptoms. A few participants had adverse events during treatment but none of these were serious or permanent. This is a very preliminary study, and much more research is needed before neurostimulation could be considered as an effective therapy for RA.

Learn more about neurostimulation at these links:

This information was reviewed in August 2020 with expert advice from:

Dr. Philip Baer MDCM, FRCPC, FACR
President, Ontario Rheumatology Association