Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation reduces pain and fatigue in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus: A randomised, double-blind, sham-controlled pilot trial

Publication Date


Journal Title

Ann Rheum Dis


© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2020. No commercial re-use. See rights and permissions. Published by BMJ. Objectives: Musculoskeletal pain and fatigue are common features in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway is a physiological mechanism diminishing inflammation, engaged by stimulating the vagus nerve. We evaluated the effects of non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation in patients with SLE and with musculoskeletal pain. Methods: 18 patients with SLE and with musculoskeletal pain ≥4 on a 10 cm Visual Analogue Scale were randomised (2:1) in this double-blind study to receive transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) or sham stimulation (SS) for 4 consecutive days. Evaluations at baseline, day 5 and day 12 included patient assessments of pain, disease activity (PtGA) and fatigue. Tender and swollen joint counts and the Physician Global Assessment (PGA) were completed by a physician blinded to the patient's therapy. Potential biomarkers were evaluated. Results: taVNS and SS were well tolerated. Subjects receiving taVNS had a significant decrease in pain and fatigue compared with SS and were more likely (OR=25, p=0.02) to experience a clinically significant reduction in pain. PtGA, joint counts and PGA also improved. Pain reduction and improvement of fatigue correlated with the cumulative current received. In general, responses were maintained through day 12. Plasma levels of substance P were significantly reduced at day 5 compared with baseline following taVNS but other neuropeptides, serum and whole blood-stimulated inflammatory mediators, and kynurenine metabolites showed no significant change at days 5 or 12 compared with baseline. Conclusion: taVNS resulted in significantly reduced pain, fatigue and joint scores in SLE. Additional studies evaluating this intervention and its mechanisms are warranted.

Document Type



Faculty; Northwell Researcher


School of Medicine; Northwell Health

Primary Department

Molecular Medicine

Additional Departments

General Internal Medicine; Neurosurgery; Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology and Prevention





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