Is a cure for sleep apnea on the horizon?
From Denny: The health sphere is where crazy imaginative science fiction meets the newest health aids. Sleep apnea affects millions of troubled sleepers in America every night. It can be a dangerous obstructive sleep disorder.
Scientists must either have a great sense of humor or be odd sadists because now their latest effort to stop sleep apnea is to use a device to zap your tongue while you are sleeping. It's like a tongue taser, a tongue nerve pacemaker.
Seriously, what is the research community trying to achieve here? The object is to prevent the tongue and throat muscles from relaxing so much during our sleep that they actually collapse and block our breathing. Who knew getting relaxed and mellow was a bad thing?
The tough thing is that sleep apnea sufferers can experience this breathing obstruction as often as every 30 seconds. It can cause a sleeper to jerk awake and gasp. This cycle can repeat itself as much as 30 times an hour. They are also known for loud snoring which can affect their sleeping partner. It gets to the point that sufferers dread going to bed every night since the cycling tires them.
Talk about not getting a good night's sleep. Sufferers are deprived of our crucial deep sleep. How does this affect them during their waking hours? Being so sleep deprived of that restorative deep sleep we can be at higher risk for car crashes and deadly diseases.
New study to find relief
Inspire Medical System in Minneapolis, Minnesota, will begin a 100 apnea patient study come January 2011. What they will study is if stimulation of the hypoglossal nerve is effective. Two companies developing this implant device are ImThera Medical based in San Diego, California and Apnex Medical based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
"In this kind of research, we're not looking for little changes," says Dr. Meir Kryger, a sleep medicine specialist at Gaylord Hospital in Connecticut, who is helping to lead the study. "What we're looking for is actually cure."
How many Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea? About 12 million, many who are overweight and middle-aged men - but anyone can have it.
To date what is the best treatment for sleep apnea? Right now sufferers use a mask that gently blows air through the nose to help keep airways open while sleeping. This is called CPAP - Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. As many as 30 percent of sufferers will not or cannot use the CPAP mask. They complain some masks leak or fit poorly. Others complain about feeling claustrophobic. Still others end up ripping off the masks during the night while they toss and turn during sleep.
Is it wise to go untreated? No. Apparently, going untreated is a risky business. Sleep apnea raises the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. What is the most immediate risk is that severe sleep apnea actually increases the chance of you crashing your car by seven times!
What do surgeons do for severe forms of sleep apnea? There is an operation where they actually remove part of the roof of the mouth or some other soft tissue. These are tricky operations and difficult to predict if they actually help. They are reserved for the most severe cases and are questionable as to effectiveness.
So what about this new device, the equivalent of a pacemaker for your tongue? Doctors implant a small generator near the collarbone. Then they snake a wire up under the jaw to the tongue-controlling nerve, the hypoglossal nerve. A sensor at the patient's diaphragm will detect when the person inhales and signal the implant to zap the tongue nerve. The power has to be adjusted so that the tongue nerve gets stimulated just enough to keep the tongue from falling backward during sleep.
"I don't have any idea while I'm sleeping that it's on," says Krohn, the Minnesota man who'd given up on apnea treatment until volunteering for an early Inspire study last year - and says he now gets a good night's sleep. "It's a game-changer for me."
This tongue pacemaker device is still experimental. Before you get to this level try the CPAP mask first and then talk to a sleep technician. They may know more than your doctor since they specialize in the field. There are several details you might not know like adjusting humidity levels while sleeping. If you are overweight or obese, they work on losing what weight you can. Weight loss is known to help tremendously.
Hopefully, this tongue pacemaker may take the place of the uncomfortable mask. Until then check out a sleep disorder clinic and talk to them in depth. And may you get a good night's rest.
*** Photo from istockphoto.com
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