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Enigma of the Vagus Nerve

by | Parenting, Print Articles, Winter 2023

Many children suffer from a condition that is classified as Attention Deficit Disorder ADD or ADDHD. Parents are often bewildered by the responses of teachers and peers to their over active and exuberant child whose unruly behaviour both in and out of the classroom is seen to be problematic.

Fathers characteristically seem to be most sensitive to the negativity that is associated with their child’s behavioural disorder and often seek to distance themselves from the situation as far as possible.

The medical profession is frequently quick to prescribe Ritalin as a solution that is, “cheap, proven and effective.” Mothers on the other hand, who generally have a closer connection with their children, are not always convinced that this is the best and only solution. Understanding a child’s condition and plight however requires a journey down paths that necessitate soul searching and questioning.

Before one ventures to make judgements and suggestions about discipline and the right or wrong ways to raise children picture to yourself the following scenario: You are working with a hammer and some nails trying to hang a picture in your lounge. By misfortune you happen to hit your thumb instead of the nail. The experience in your thumb is one of acute compression which translates as pain. As a result you become immediately attention deficit being preoccupied with your condition. Now imagine how you would feel and behave if this pain were located at the base of your skull where the spine meets your head, (in the area of the atlanto occipital joint.) Furthermore imagine how you would feel if the pain had been there from the time of your birth. How would you have behaved? You would have cried and screamed and been altogether unruly. As you grew up you would have had to accept this as normal, but would have tried to equalise the sensory overload by running around, rocking on your chair and otherwise being hyper active.

You would have tried to find as many ways as possible to lessen the pain and discomfort. When you entered school this would have been an almost impossible situation to bear as you would have been required to sit still – listen and concentrate. Furthermore you would have always been in trouble and accident prone. Your relationship with your parents – your link to life and meaning itself, could also have been threatened with hidings and punishments as dad’s answer to problems can often be summarised as: “The child just needs a good hiding.”

You may also have also experienced problems processing auditory information; like hearing speech sounds but not being able to perceive the meaning of the sounds. For example, if someone said the word ‘shoe,’ you may have heard the speech sound, but not understood the meaning of the sound. Sometimes the lack of speech comprehension could have interpreted by others as an unwillingness to comply. You may have simply been unable to retrieve the meaning of the sound at that particular time.

Coming back to you as the parent: Along your journey you might research invaluable books like: The Feeling Child (Dr Arthur Janov), Transactional Analysis (Berne), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and The Drama of Being a Child (Alice Miller) to name only a few. Yet at the end of this you may still be unable to adequately address and fully understand the needs of your dysfunctional and rapidly sinking child who some insightful teachers have described as a potential psychopath. In fact you may have called in at the school’s referred psychologist for your child’s assessment and entered into a counselling programme to help address the marital strains and cracks. When candidly reviewed the important questions however can often remain largely unanswered. What to do?

The Vagus Nerve

At this juncture it will be useful to take a brief look at the anatomy and physiology of the Vagus nerve and also to be aware that the nerve has an impact on the function on that part of the brain that does sensory processing: the brainstem or mammalian brain, including the areas called the midbrain, the pons, the medulla, the cerebellum and the limbic system.

The Vagus nerve is the 10th of 12 pairs of cranial nerves and exits the cranium (skull) through two openings (left and right) called the Jugular foramen. It has many branches and supplies sensory innervation to many organs and parts of the body:

The Meningeal Branch is a recurrent filament given off from the jugular ganglion; it is distributed to the dura mater in the posterior fossa of the base of the skull.

The Auricular Branch supplies sensory innervation to the skin of the ear canal.

The Pharyngeal Branch
The Superior Laryngeal Nerve – divides into two branches, external and internal.

The Recurrent Nerve supplies motor function and sensation to the larynx (voice box).

The Superior Cardiac Branches

Upper branches, Inferior Cardiac Branches,
Anterior Bronchial Branches, Posterior Bronchial Branches
Esophageal Branches

The Gastric Branches are distributed to the stomach. The right vagus forms the posterior gastric plexus on the postero-inferior surface of the stomach and the left the anterior gastric plexus on the antero-superior surface.

The Celiac Branches are mainly derived from the right vagus: they join the celiac plexus and through it supply branches to the pancreas, spleen, kidneys, suprarenal bodies, and intestine.

The Hepatic Branches arise from the left vagus: they join the hepatic plexus and through it are conveyed to the liver.

From the above it can be seen that the nerve is complex and has many braches and functions – hence the name translated from Latin – the wandering nerve.

It affects the eyes, ears, heart and the stomach. Moreover it is parasympathetic which means that it carries an emotional aspect to its function.

Furthermore regarding brain function:
It is essential for fluids to move in an unrestricted manner throughout the brain for it to perform optimally. Traveling through the Jugular foramen are also vessels that supply blood to the brain, and vessels that drain blood and cerebrospinal fluid from the brain. Approximately 85 percent of this drainage occurs through vessels that pass through the jugular foramina and become the jugular veins.

Any dysfunction of the suture containing jugular foramen can result in a hyper-excited response via the sympathetic and parasympathetic fibres within their target structures

Diagnosis and treatment

A question that arises is: “How does one know if the problem lies at the cranial base?” An obvious indication is that children suffering from this condition will most often be closely guarded to any form of touch to the back of their necks. A cue presents itself when if asked to rate their level of discomfort in response to touch on a scale from 1 to 10 the child replies:
“What happens if it is 200?”
Secondly an assessment of the flexibility and motion of the atlanto occipital joint by a qualified CranioSacral therapist will quickly and easily determine if this is the problem.

Working with children can sometimes be a heart breaking affair. Parents are often dismayed at the complexity of problems that can manifest in their children; from a host of conditions like unintegrated primitive reflexes, midline barriers, dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome, torticollis and nightmares to name a few.

“No one gave me the manual,” is a cry that is frequently heard.

A mother’s wisdom however is intuitive and seldom wrong. Complimentary therapies are often far more effective and less invasive than allopathic interventions, drugs and medications.

CranioSacral Therapy

Both diagnosis and treatment in CST are accomplished through the faculties of palpation and touch which are gentle and non-invasive in their application.


All forms of motion in the body are organised around a fulcrum: (the point around which things move.)
The midline of the body acts as a natural fulcrum around which the essential health carried in the rhythms of Primary Respiratory (PRI) motion is expressed. When faced with stress, trauma and/or injury, a primary physiological response of tissues is to contract. These tissue contractions can remain if the body’s resources for repair and rebalancing are overwhelmed. When this happens the body tries to centre the forces in inertial fulcrums. Dr Rollin Becker states that the trapped potency found within each inertial fulcrum is the essential factor at work at the core of every condition of ill health. Exactly how the body responds to new events or experiences is largely determined by what has gone before. Each new overwhelming experience may diminish the amount of vitality that is available to deal with the next. As a result someone who is already traumatised, retaining deeply held or numerous inertial fulcrums, may reach a point of overwhelm after only a minor new stress or stimulus. Thus, the presence of unresolved stress provides a fertile ground for new ones to accumulate.

If a nerve is already stimulated (for example due to compression), the threshold required for it to conduct an impulse can become lowered. Spinal nerves are often affected in this way, caused by the pressure from restrictions. If the effects of injury are unresolved, the nerves may remain in a constant state of irritation. As the threshold required for them to conduct impulses is lowered, they become prone to over activity. This may cause irritable impulses to be sent to the spinal cord, leading to facilitated segments of the spine. This in turn causes irritable nerve impulses to the stomach, called a somato-visceral reflex and can result in digestive sensitivities, indigestion, inflammation and / or ulcers. Breathing difficulties, heart problems, urinary and reproductive disorders may also result from facilitation of the spine.

Doing something to a problem is technique; working with an inherent mechanism within the problem is an application of a principle – not a technique. In CST conversation skills are used to support the expression of intrinsic health found at the centre of every inertial fulcrum. With an indirect approach of treatment, tissues are followed into their direction of preference. This is the pathway along which tissue or bone can most easily express its primary respiratory motion, despite the presence of inertia. It is also the path of least resistance. This is described as an unlatching principle. It is like opening a tight door latch, where it may first be necessary to follow the closure. When the tissues are followed into their direction of preference, this can facilitate a permanent release of inertia. When given the space, the self-corrective forces of the body have an opportunity to come back into play.

The processes of healing are never just about identifying problems, but involve accessing the resources that can help resolve problems. A person is never just the pattern of their trauma. People can however get stuck in an experience. When this happens the trauma pattern becomes a major fulcrum with which people identify themselves and shape their lives. Trauma remains for as long as the sufferers are unable to access the resources to complete the process of discharge.

Essentially it is not a memory of the past but an experience carried into the present. Traumatic experiences which have not yet reached a satisfactory point of completion and resolution become perpetuated as a physiological pattern. Much of unresolved energy of a traumatised person ends up being trapped in their nervous system.

Children’s Drawings

A useful area of reference is children’s drawings. Although not conclusive in themselves their drawings can provide a surprisingly accurate picture of what is happening at the cranial base and how children feel about their condition.

Working with the interpretation that the tree trunk represents the spine with its nerves and the foliage the cranium; the drawing (left)clearly indicates compression and blockage through the absence of branches leading from the trunk into the foliage. The drawing (right) shows the finite shift that has been made with CST in releasing the compression and opening the function (and breathing) of the craniosacral system.

Extracted from “Views of a South African Illustrator” by Ray Lacey available on Amazon in Kindle, soft and hard cover.

Useful link
Craniosacral Therapy Association of South Africa https://www.cranial.org.za