Neuroanatomy, Cranial Nerve 10 (Vagus Nerve)


Article Author:
Brian Kenny


Article Editor:
Bruno Bordoni


Editors In Chief:
Juan Batlle
Jitendra Sisodia
Jeffrey Miller


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Orawan Chaigasame
Carrie Smith
Abdul Waheed
Frank Smeeks
Kristina Soman-Faulkner
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Saad Nazir
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Pritesh Sheth
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Navid Mahabadi
Steve Bhimji
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Matthew Varacallo
Ahmad Malik
Mark Pellegrini
James Hughes
Beata Beatty
Hajira Basit
Phillip Hynes


Updated:
1/25/2019 5:32:17 PM

Introduction

The vagus nerve (Cranial nerve [CN] X) is the longest cranial nerve in the body, containing both motor and sensory functions in both the afferent and efferent regards. The nerve travels widely throughout the body affecting several organ systems and regions of the body, such as the tongue, pharynx, heart and gastrointestinal system. Because of the wide distribution of the nerve throughout the body, there are several clinical correlations of the vagus nerve.

Structure and Function

The vagus nerve has its origin in the medulla oblongata and exits the skull via the jugular foramen. There are two ganglia on the vagus nerve (superior and inferior) as it exits the jugular foramen; the spinal accessory nerve (CN XI) joins the vagus nerve just distal to the inferior ganglion.[1][2]

The origin of cell bodies for the vagus nerve originates from the nucleus ambiguous; the dorsal motor nucleus of X, superior ganglion of X, and the inferior ganglion of X. The nerve fibers from the nucleus ambiguous are efferent, special visceral (ESV) fibers which help to mediate swallowing and phonation. Fibers originating from the dorsal motor nucleus of X are efferent, general visceral (EGV) fibers which provide the involuntary muscle control of organs it innervates (cardiac, pulmonary, esophageal) and innervation to glands throughout the gastrointestinal tract. Superior ganglion of X provides afferent general somatic innervation to the external ear and tympanic membrane. The inferior ganglion of X provides afferent general visceral fibers to the carotid and aortic bodies; the efferent fibers of this nerve travel to the nucleus tractus solitarius; the inferior ganglion also provides taste sensation to the pharynx and relays this information to the nucleus tractus solitarius.[2][1][3][4][5]

The vagus nerve continues by traveling inferiorly within the carotid sheath where it is located posterior and lateral to the internal and common carotid arteries, and medial to the internal jugular vein. The right vagus nerve travels anteriorly to the subclavian artery and then posterior to the innominate artery; it makes its descent into the thoracic cavity by traveling to the right of the trachea, and posterior to the hilum on the right, moving medially to form the esophageal plexus with the left vagus nerve. The left vagus nerve travels anteriorly to the subclavian artery and enters the thoracic cavity wedged between the left common carotid and subclavian arteries; it then descends posteriorly to the phrenic nerve and posterior to the left lung, then travels medially towards to the esophagus forming the esophageal plexus with the right vagus nerve.[5][1][3][4]

There are four branches of the vagus nerve within the neck: pharyngeal branches, superior laryngeal nerve, recurrent laryngeal nerve, and the superior cardiac nerve.[6]

The pharyngeal nerve branches arise from the inferior ganglion of CNX containing both sensory and motor fibers. These fibers form the pharyngeal plexus–branches of this plexus innervate the pharyngeal and palate muscles (except the tensor palatine muscle); the pharyngeal plexus also supplies the innervation to the intercarotid plexus which mediates information from the carotid body.[3][6]

The superior laryngeal nerve travels between the external and internal carotid arteries; the nerve divides into internal and external branches near the level of the hyoid. The internal laryngeal nerve goes through the thyrohyoid membrane entering the larynx. The external portion travels distally with the superior thyroid vessels. The external portion supplies the cricothyroid muscle, whereas the internal branch supplies the mucosa superior to the glottis.[6]

The right recurrent laryngeal nerve’s fibers branch from the vagus nerve near the right subclavian artery, traveling superiorly to enter the larynx between the cricopharyngeus muscle and the esophagus. The left recurrent laryngeal nerve then loops around the aortic arch distal to the ligamentum arteriosus and then enters the larynx. All of the laryngeal musculature receives supply via the recurrent laryngeal nerve except for the cricothyroid muscle (supplied by the laryngeal nerve).[3][6]

While the vagus nerve is within the carotid sheath, it gives off the superior cardiac nerve and is associated with parasympathetic fibers and travels to the heart.[7][4]

The vagus nerve gives off anterior and posterior bronchial branches in which the anterior branches are along the anterior lung forming the anterior pulmonary plexus, whereas the posterior branches form the posterior pulmonary plexus.[3][6]

Esophageal branches of the vagus nerve are anterior and posterior and form the esophageal plexus. The left vagus is anterior to the esophagus; the right vagus is posterior.[3][6]

Gastric branches supply the stomach; celiac branches (mainly derived from the right vagus nerve) supply the pancreas, spleen, kidneys, adrenals and small intestine.[3][1][8][4]

Embryology

The vagus nerve arises from the fourth branchial arch; this arch is also responsible for the development of the pharyngeal and laryngeal muscles, the laryngeal cartilages, the aortic arch, and subclavian artery.

Blood Supply and Lymphatics

The middle meningeal artery supplies the intracranial blood supply to the vagus nerve. The extracranial blood supply is from the common carotid artery, internal carotid artery, inferior thyroid artery, external carotid artery, a posterior meningeal artery, internal thoracic arteries, bronchial arteries, and esophageal arteries.[9][6]

The vagal system is involved in regulating the contraction of lymphatic (containing actin) cells.

Nerves

The vagus nerve has branches within the neck; these branches are the pharyngeal branches, superior laryngeal nerves, recurrent laryngeal nerves, and superior cardiac nerves. The structure and function of these nerves were described above.

Muscles

The vagus nerve has several fibers that innervate the striated muscles of the larynx and pharynx; there are two exceptions: the stylopharyngeus muscle (CNIX) and the tensor veli palatini muscle (V3).[3]

The vagus nerve innervates one muscle of the tongue: palatoglossus muscle–its function is to elevate the posterior portion of the tongue.[3]

The external branch of the superior laryngeal nerve supplies the cricothyroid muscle.[3]

The pharyngeal branches of the vagus supply: levator veli palatini, salpingopharyngeus, palatopharyngeus, and the uvula.[3]

Recurrent laryngeal nerves innervate the intrinsic muscles of the larynx, except the cricothyroid muscle (the external branch of the superior laryngeal nerve).[3]

Physiologic Variants

The recurrent laryngeal nerve has two branches prior to inserting into the larynx; the branching is typically inferior to the cricoid cartilage; however, there are instances when there are more than two branches, and thus are called esophageal branches.[10]

There are several variations of the non-recurrent vagus nerve.

Surgical Considerations

Consideration for the branches of the recurrent laryngeal nerve is critical during surgery of the thyroid gland. Because of the proximity of the thyroid gland and the branches of the recurrent laryngeal nerve, recommendations are for maintaining all nerves in this region unless there is a compromise of the nerve itself by malignancy.[4][6][11]

The recurrent laryngeal nerve may be damaged during a cervical esophagectomy, during the removal of a pharyngoesophageal diverticulum or a gastro-esophageal anastomosis after performing the trans-hiatal esophagectomy. In the diverticulum excision and the anastomosis, the recurrent laryngeal nerve is lesioned from pressure applied by retractors in the operating room.[10][12][11]

Damage can be done to the external laryngeal nerve at the time of ligation of the superior thyroid artery during a thyroidectomy.[4][11]

Clinical Significance

The vagus nerve is commonly tested clinically in conjugation with the glossopharyngeal nerve because their apparent effects that are oftentimes reliant upon another. A patient is often asked to open their mouth and say ‘ah,’ this should cause elevation of the uvula. If there is a lesion, the uvula shifts away from the paralyzed side. Gag reflex should not be used as a clinical exam as there can be a bilateral loss of the gag reflex in a healthy patient. If a patient is noted to have hoarseness during the physical exam, this should show the need to test the vocal cords in the patient; if there is hoarseness with a normal gag reflex and palatal elevation, this indicates a lesion of the recurrent laryngeal nerve.[3]

Vagus nerve stimulation was created as a means to reach a centrally located neurological structures by minimally invasive means. In the conventional vagus nerve stimulation technique, a device is implanted surgically under the skin in the chest, and electrical wires connect to the left vagus nerve (left used more often than right, as the right vagus nerve is more likely to have branches to the heart). Vagus nerve stimulation is approved to treat epilepsy and depression; however, with the wide distribution of the vagus nerve throughout the body, stimulation is being explored for other purposes such as the treatment of obesity.[13][4]

Stimulation of the larynx provides reflexes including cough, apnea, and effects on the cardiovascular system such as bradycardia and hypotension.

Central lesions of the vagus nerve can cause: dysphagia, dysarthria and hoarseness; uvula deviation (towards the opposite side of the lesion); and transient parasympathetic effects.

Lateral medullary syndrome (posterior inferior cerebellar artery infarction) leads to the destruction of the glossopharyngeal and vagus nerves, the nucleus ambiguous, the solitary nucleus and the spinocerebellar tracts.

Other Issues

Mechanical alterations of the vagus nerve may be related to emotional problems (depression and anxiety), in patients with COPD and CHF. One of its dysfunctions could also be a source of pain in the same patient population.[14][15][16]


  • Image 85 Not availableImage 85 Not available
    Contributed Illustration by Beckie Palmer
Attributed To: Contributed Illustration by Beckie Palmer

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Neuroanatomy, Cranial Nerve 10 (Vagus Nerve) - Questions

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Which nerve is contained within carotid sheath?



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The criminal nerve of Grassi is a branch of which of the following nerves?



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When doing a dissection in the cadaver lab, a nerve is found in the carotid sheath. What is true of this nerve as it descends into the abdomen?



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At the level of the carotid sheath, there are branches leave the nerve from within the sheath and descend towards the heart. Which part of the heart is innervated and what effect does this nerve have the heart?



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Which of the following passes through the esophageal hiatus?



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An 82-year-old man with past history of type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, coronary artery disease and cataracts presents to the emergency room with new onset of symptoms. He said these symptoms began about 3 hours ago and he thought that they would go away on their own, when they persisted he called an ambulance. His speech is slurred, and he may be having an acute ischemic attack. When performing the clinical exam, there are several deficits. When asked to say 'ah', the uvula shift toward the right. What nerve is affected based off of this uvula deficit?



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Which of the following nerves supplies parasympathetic fibers to the thoracic and abdominal viscera?



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What structure originates from the medulla oblongata, travels through the jugular foramen, and within the carotid sheath?



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When performing an exam on a postoperative patient, it is noticed that their voice seems hoarse. Which nerve is most likely affected and from what cranial nerve does it originate?



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Invasion of which nerve from lung cancer could cause facial or eye pain?



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Which cranial nerve provides primary motor innervation of the larynx and velum?



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A 53-year-old man is diagnosed as having a non-operable tumor of the central nervous system. He initially presented with severe headaches and weight loss. At this time the patient exhibits hoarseness, dyspnea, and dysphagia. On examination, the soft palate is elevated on the right side during phonation and the uvula deviates to the right. The palatal reflex is lost on the left side. There is an anesthesia of the pharynx and larynx on the ipsilateral side; resulting in loss of cough reflex. What is the likely cause of his symptoms?



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Which of the following nerves gives rise to the branch which accompanies the superior laryngeal artery and pierces the thyrohyoid membrane?



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The thyroarytenoid muscle of the larynx is derived from the fourth branchial arch. What is its innervation?



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Which deficit would be seen with a unilateral lesion of the left vagus nerve at the jugular foramen?



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Which of the following is true regarding the vagus nerve?



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Which of the following is true of the vagus nerve in a healthy, young adult?



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If the vagus nerves are severed, what happens to the respiratory rate?



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Neuroanatomy, Cranial Nerve 10 (Vagus Nerve) - References

References

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