A device held against the side of the neck for 90 seconds may be a new way to tackle asthma attacks. The battery-powered gadget, which resembles a remote control, sends out low-level electrical signals to stimulate a nerve under the skin in the neck.
This triggers a series of changes that leads to the muscles in the airways relaxing, allowing more air to pass through, and easing symptoms of breathlessness.
NHS figures suggest that 5.4 million people in the UK are being treated for asthma. In an asthma attack, the smooth muscles of the bronchi — the small tubes that branch out from the windpipe and carry air in and out of the lungs — contract. This causes the airways to narrow and, together with inflammation in the linings of the airways, leaves a patient short of breath and with a tight feeling in their chest.
The new device is designed to treat attacks by using low-level electrical stimulation of the nerve that runs up the side of the neck, called the vagus nerve.
When symptoms appear, it is held next to the skin, against the carotid artery, which is next to this nerve.
The weak electrical signal is then transmitted through the skin. The vagus nerve is crucial for co-ordinating the body’s ‘fight or flight response’ and increasing heart rate and oxygen levels in the body.
When stimulated, part of the nerve’s response is to trigger the release of the hormone adrenaline.