Vagus nerve

Last revised by Craig Hacking on 17 Oct 2022

The vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve (CN X), exits the skull through the jugular fossa, travels down along the carotid sheath, over the pericardium and into the abdomen, giving off numerous branches (TA: nervus vagus or nervus cranialis X). It is the longest cranial nerve.

It is a mixed nerve comprising parasympathetic, motor and sensory components, providing the bulk of the parasympathetic input to the gastrointestinal system and to the heart and motor fibers to the larynx and pharynx, as well as sensory fibers to the external acoustic meatus and meninges

The vagus nerve arises as multiple rootlets at the posterolateral sulcus of the medulla, between the inferior cerebellar peduncle and inferior olivary nucleus

There are four cranial nerve nuclei that contribute to the vagus nerves:

Fibers from the central nuclei exit/enter the medulla at the postolivary sulcus, between the glossopharyngeal nerve (CN IX) and the cranial root of accessory nerve (CN XI). From here, the vagus nerve travels through the basal cistern to exit the skull through the pars vascularis part of the jugular foramen and enter the carotid space

Within the jugular fossa lies the superior (jugular) sensory ganglion of the vagus nerve and the inferior (nodose) ganglion, which lies approximately 1 cm distally. 

The vagus nerve descends vertically through the neck within the carotid sheath, where it lies posteriorly between the internal/common carotid artery and internal jugular vein

Since the thorax is not symmetrical, the course of the left and right vagus nerves is not identical. 

The left vagus nerve crosses anterior to the left subclavian artery as it enters the thorax. It passes lateral to the aortic arch as it descends posterior to the hilum of the left lung and towards the esophageal hiatus, which it passes through to enter the abdominal cavity.

The right vagus nerve passes anterior to the right subclavian artery before diving into the fat surrounding the innominate vessels. It reaches the right paratracheal region before descending, like the left, posterior to the lung hilum and then medially to the esophageal hiatus, which it passes through to enter the abdominal cavity. 

Near the esophageal hiatus the left and right vagus nerves meet and join to form the esophageal plexus, from which an anterior and posterior vagal trunk (also called gastric nerves) form and descend into the abdomen. The trunks are not composed of equal fibers from the left and right as the anterior trunk is mainly composed of fibers from the left. 

The branches of the vagus nerve are described below, starting with the proximal branches and moving distally.

From the superior ganglion:

From the inferior ganglion:

From the vagus nerve:

First-line choice for imaging investigation for distal vagal neuropathy. Contrast-enhanced images from hyoid bone to mediastinum should be obtained.

Bony reformat CT of the skull base may be beneficial as an adjunct study to MRI for imaging proximal vagal neuropathy. 

First-line choice for imaging investigation of proximal vagal neuropathy. Sequences should include T1W, T2W, contrast-enhanced T1W FS in axial and coronal planes. Acquired images should extend from the medulla to the hyoid bone. 

The vagus nerve can be affected by pathology from its origin to anywhere along its course.

As the vagus nerve is mostly parasympathetic, sensory clinical features can be subtle or absent; especially when affected below the origin of the recurrent laryngeal nerves. Features include 6:

Supranuclear lesions affecting the vagus often involve other cranial nerves as well, including cranial nerves IX, XI and XII. Unilateral lesions typically reveal little or no deficit due to the bilateral input to the nucleus ambiguus from the corticobulbar regions. Pseudobulbar palsy can occur with bilateral corticobulbar lesions.

Brainstem lesions that may affect the vagus include:

'Vagus' is Latin for 'wandering', named because of the long, wandering course of the nerve; the same Latin root gives rise to the English word 'vagrant'.

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Cases and figures

  • Figure 1: vagus nerve
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  • Figure 2: motor nuclei
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  • Figure 3: parasympathetic nuclei
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  • Figure 4: sensory nuclei
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  • Figure 5: upper medulla anatomy
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  • Figure 6: vagus nerve contributions
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  • Figure 7
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  • Figure 8: vague nerve within carotid sheath
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  • Figure 9: visceral nerves of the thorax
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  • Figure 10: mediastinum
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  • Case 1: vagus nerve at carotid sheath
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