Posted by: Noni | October 24, 2010

Beware Vulcan Nerve Pinch.

Spock isn’t the only one who can render someone unconscious.

Last Friday evening I was invited to a gathering at a friend’s house for dinner and the hockey game.  We (7 of us) feasted on BBQ ribs, chicken, roast potatoes, and Andy’s famous Caesar salad while we watched the game.

The Canuck’s held a comfortable lead so I went into the kitchen to tidy up and wash the dishes.  I joined the others  for the final period; sitting in a swivel office chair directly in front of a fellow named Brian.  I had complained earlier of stiffness in my neck and shoulders (excessive work on computer) so he offered to give me a massage.

He dug deep and pressed the knots in my muscles trying to get me to loosen up.  He concentrated his efforts on the neck, shoulders and upper arms.  (what he could comfortably reach while we both sat in chairs)  I shrugged off the pain thinking that a deep tissue workout was just what I needed.  After several minutes he stopped to rest claiming that his thumbs were sore.  A few minutes later when he started to dig in again I began feeling light-headed.  There was a tingling in my ears and I felt a bit sick to my stomach.  I told him to stop for a minute and waited till the dizziness subsided at bit.  When he began rubbing and digging again I felt myself starting to pass out.

Immediately I knew that something was wrong.  I was fighting to remain conscious and  a black fog obscured my vision.  I had no pain but I couldn’t stay awake.  I told my friends that something was wrong and they should call 911.  After that I concentrated all my energy on staying conscious.  I kept drifting in and out and apparently had what appeared to be a seizure of sorts.  My eyes rolled back and I was shaking then passed out again.

The ringing and rushing sounds in my ears made it difficult to hear and my vision was fluctuating from blurring to blackness.  I could hear voices around me but couldn’t get them to answer my calls for help.

By the time the paramedics arrived (about 10 minutes after they called 911) I was completely blue from head to toe (cyanotic), waxen and unable to move or speak.  I had no blood pressure, no pulse and had stopped breathing several times.  (for up to 20 seconds at a time)  I was floating in and out of consciousness and knew that I was at risk of slipping into a coma if I didn’t get oxygen to my brain and heart.

The EMT’s moved quickly and efficiently.  They lowered me from the chair to the floor and elevated my feet to help bring blood and oxygen to my head.  They called for an ALS Unit (which I found out later meant Advanced Life Support) and transferred me to a stretcher for transport to hospital.  I instantly found myself gaining strength when they put an oxygen mask over my face.  I still had no idea what had caused the attack.  I was scared and disoriented as I mumbled answers to medical history they were taking.   I was given 2 baby aspirin which led me to think I was having a heart attack.  I listened for words and picked out some scary ones from the conversations going on around me… stroke, seizure, heart attack, no radial, no pulse, blue…  I tried to stay composed as I instructed a friend to contact my family.

Once inside the ambulance they inserted an IV and gave me Gravol for nausea.  They hooked me up to monitoring equipment and we stopped a few times on route for them to take some readings.  I became more and more coherent and alert as we drove and by the time we were at the hospital I felt confident that the worst was over.

It was then that I learned what had happened.  Apparently the Vagus Nerves in my neck had been over-stimulated leading to my heart slowing down and bronchial passages constricting.  This caused oxygen deprivation which had caused me to faint.   The results were much the same as Spock had used in Star Trek.  I was rendered unconscious.

The good news is that paramedics arrived before permanent damage was done.  Usually massage is done while you are laying down which helps keep blood flowing to the brain.  In my case I was sitting upright in a chair.  Had I been standing I would have fainted and recovered (laying flat keeps blood-flow going to head) faster but since they kept me sitting in the chair, the problem compounded.

NOTE:  If someone complains that they are dizzy or light headed, get them to lay down and elevate the feet if they start to turn blue.

Turning blue is an indicator that the blood has no oxygen, we need oxygen to survive.  Watch for signs of blue around mouth and nose.

I was tested for diabetic coma (blood sugar levels were safe)and ECG (Electro Cardiogram) monitoring for several hours at hospital was normal.   After my blood work came back normal, I was released and sent home.   The only side effects were grogginess from the Gravol and bruising at the intravenous site on my arm.

All in all it was a valuable learning experience and one I will never forget.  I am thankful that I was saved by the prompt response of the emergency team and will suffer no permanent damage due to loss of oxygen (which could have caused death, paralysis or brain damage)

So… word of caution… excessive pressure from massage can cause damage to or over stimulate nerves in the neck region.

The saying “No pain, no gain” doesn’t ring true in this instance.  Use care and attention when giving or receiving a massage.

This diagram demonstrates what the Vagus Nerve does:

Here’s more about the Vagus Nerve from

Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” and it is an accurate description of this nerve, which emerges at the back of the skull and meanders in a leisurely way through the abdomen, with a number of branching nerves coming into contact with the heartlungs, voicebox,stomach, and ears, among other body parts. The vagus nerve carries incoming information from the nervous system to the brain, providing information about what the body is doing, and it also transmits outgoing information which governs a range of reflexresponses.

The vagus nerve helps to regulate the heart beat, control muscle movement, keep a person breathing, and to transmit a variety of chemicals through the body. It is also responsible for keeping thedigestive tract in working order, contracting the muscles of the stomach and intestines to help process food, and sending back information about what is being digested and what the body is getting out of it.

When the vagus nerve is stimulated, the response is often a reduction in heart-rate or breathing. In some cases, excessive stimulation can cause someone to have what is known as a vaso-vagal response, appearing to fall into a faint or coma because his or her heart rate and blood pressure drop so much.



  1. Dear Noni – I am SO glad to have found someone else who has shared my experience! I am currently experiencing something new and quite strange, though. As of late, when I first wake up and head to the washroom for my routine….uh, movement, if I tilt my head back and press on a nerve that has been sore for a while, I WILL blackout. Luckily, I manage to stop myself. Today was the 2nd day in a row I tried to purposely do this for sake of self education for when I talk to my doctor. I can literally feel the blood drain from my cranium, my extremities become cold and numb, nauseous, and a fear of impending doom washes over me. This is also accompanied by PROFUSE sweating. This had actually happened to me a few years back on New Year’s Day. However, I was awakened by sharp stomach cramps and the urge to “go”. I made it to the washroom, sat down and suddenly felt that I also felt the need to throw up at the same time! WHAT TO DO??? Well, apparently I didn’t have to “do” anything because I was out cold in a flash. Thankfully, my parents were here and had the good sense to check on me since they heard me go into the washroom, but not come out for quite some time. I could hear my Mom (on & off) and occasionally I was aware that she was slapping my cheek to wake me. But, I couldn’t come to. I also felt that my lips were tingling as if they were vibrating and became aware that my tongue was sticking out. Not a pretty sight, is it? Anyhow, during my in & out of consciousness, I actually heard the sirens on the ambulance and fire truck rescue team approach. Again, a period of blackout, then I could hear talking and realized one of them was kneeling right beside me asking me questions. Most of which I didn’t know the answers to. For example, they asked if I knew what time it was. To me, in that state, I felt it was around 5 or 6 am. In reality, it was shortly after 10am. (fast forward to the hospital) After a battery of tests the doc told me I had suffered a vasovagal attack. I was assured that it was not a heart attack or a stroke or anything like that and that I would be released within the next couple hours after receiving IV saline because I was apparently dehydrated from the amount of sweat I lost during the attack combined with having gone to the bathroom. But then she told me something odd. She said that most people that get this once, will almost certainly get it again somewhere down the road. Well, that was today. Fortunately, it lasted only a few seconds. It took me about 10 minutes to regain my wits, but I was OK. Have you heard anything about this in regards to a nerve or possibly muscle right at the back of the neck (base of skull)? It apparently is connected to a problem I’ve had in my left shoulder. For probably the better part of a year or so, I’ve had (what I think) is a pinched nerve right in the shoulder socket itself. For the life of me, I cannot work it out. My doc told me that it will eventually work it’s way loose again. It has not, obviously. Any info you could share would be greatly appreciated as I find this to be a most frightening experience.



  2. Dear Dr Talk,
    I had never heard of the Vagus nerve until this happened to me. It was the emergancy attendant that made the original diagnosis but after extensive research I am inclined to agree with. Unfortunately I was not given very good treatment at the hospital. Since I was brought in under questionable circumstance they assumed I was a drug overdose (common in that area) and brushed me off the minute the heart tests came back clear.

    I have had some unexplained attacks that can only be described as neurological disturbances… dizziness, disorientation, absent seizures, hyperactive bowel and stomach…. all of which can appear and disappear without explanation or reason.

    It bothered me a bit when I considered that I may have another episode, but… I could get hit by a bus or gunned down in a movie theater just as likely so I choose to live healthy and positively with moderation as key.

    Wishing you health and worry free days in your future as well.


  3. Same thing happened to me from having the flu and holding my chest tight to stop coughing so much, like I think we all have done. I keeled over and flopped onto the beach from my beach chair beside my wife, but came to in about 10 seconds. Happened again the next morning and my wife took me to the ER. All kind of tests, and they said it was “common”. Common! How come nobody I knew had ever heard of it.
    Now- if I am driving with a bad cough I am very conscious (you might say) to not try to hold back, or I pull over.


    • The human body is an intricate device with many possible reasons for such an event. In my case it turned out that I had major toxic poisoning due to living in a house with concealed mold and a methane gas leak. I had an entire host of symptoms, most of which had been diagnosed as infections and allergies. Then I had a stroke and lost the sight in my right eye. The ophthalmologist was the first Dr. to actually listen to my ideas and follow a line of testing to reveal that I was indeed very ill. Grateful to be well now. Restricted diet was the main treatment. All the medications that I had been given actually intensified the toxicity in my bloodstream and worsened my condition.


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