Sleep apnea increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. But the treatment, wearing a CPAP mask to bed, is so uncomfortable that many patients abandon it. Now, research in this week's New England Journal of Medicine shows that a pacemaker-like electronic implant could reduce symptoms by nearly 70 per cent, by directly stimulating the muscles in the throat to keep the airway open during sleep. It's like autopilot for breathing.
Like a cardiac pacemaker, the apnea device is implanted under the skin of the chest. A sensor placed between the fourth and fifth ribs monitors breathing patterns, sending a signal to the hypoglossal nerve with each breath. The nerve signal stimulates the muscle at the back of the tongue, keeping the airway open to allow normal breathing. Patients use a remote control to turn the device on at bedtime, and switch it off when they get up.
In a 12-month study of 126 patients fitted with the device, it reduced the number of times patients slowed or stopped breathing by nearly 70%. While the device isn't meant for everybody — researchers say it won't work well in very obese patients or those with certain types of soft palate collapse — the promise of CPAP-free therapy for sleep apnea patients is huge. And the wireless remote control activation means sleep mode isn't just for smartphones anymore. [New England Journal of Medicine via WSJ]