Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers have been treated mostly with medicines designed to treat the symptoms of the disease.
But now, researchers may have a way to treat this widespread disease without resorting to expensive prescription drugs.
In 2016, a team of researchers from several countries, including the U.S., reported that stimulating the vagus nerve with an electrical pulse appeared to inhibit the production of some of the inflammation-promoting proteins – called cytokines – commonly seen in people with RA.
The study, headed by physicians at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, involved implanting a small medical device similar to a cardiac pacemaker under the skin in the chest wall and connecting wires from the device to the vagus nerve in the neck. The device, which is really a small electrical generator, was programmed to deliver small electrical pulses to stimulate the nerve up to four times each day.
Doctors already treat a handful of conditions with vagus nerve stimulation including depression and epilepsy which have not responded to medicinal treatments.
Researchers are also excited to discover some overlap between the nervous system and the immune system. Previously, scientists believed the two systems were totally independent but this line of research has led them to conclude they are much closer than previously thought.
Treating rheumatoid arthritis with this device is still a ways off and scientists were cautious in their conclusions because of the small sample size of the study.
“Still, it seems like an amazing potential treatment, especially given that the standard drug treatments for RA have many risks and don’t work for everyone,” Jayatilleke notes. “The thought of harnessing vagus nerve stimulation to control inflammation is very exciting, just because it is such a different way of approaching inflammatory conditions. It would be interesting to see if it had similar positive effects in other rheumatologic conditions, such as lupus,” she adds.