Recurrent laryngeal nerve

Last revised by Travis Fahrenhorst-Jones on 02 Aug 2021

The recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN), also known as the inferior laryngeal nerve, is a branch of the vagus nerve (CN X) which has a characteristic loop around the right subclavian artery on the right and the aortic arch on the left before returning up to achieve the tracheoesophageal groove and then the larynx


  • location: superior mediastinum and the lower neck regions 
  • origin and course: originates from the vagus nerve (CN X)
    • on the right side, the recurrent laryngeal nerve exits anteriorly to the subclavian artery and travels inferiorly and posteriorly under the artery before ascending through the neck between the trachea and the esophagus
    • on the left side, the recurrent laryngeal nerve exits at the aortic arch level and courses posteromedially beneath it before looping through the aorticopulmonary window, posterior to the ligamentum arteriosum
    • the course from that point is symmetric
  • branches and supply
  • relations: right subclavian artery on the right side and aortic arch on the left
  • variants: non-recurrent laryngeal nerve

History and etymology

The Greek physician, Galen of Pergamon (129-210) was the first to describe the RLN as a branch of a cranial nerve and famously demonstrated its role in vocalization when he accidentally cut the recurrent laryngeal nerve of a squealing pig 4

The word recurrent is derived from the Latin word "recurrere" meaning "to run back" 5. This is in reference to the course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve. 

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