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Relief for sleep apnea patients could come not with a machine, but an implant

Relief for sleep apnea patients could come not with a machine, but an implant

(WGN) -- An implantable device designed to help people breathe better at night could be a solution to a common sleep problem. It's estimated that up to 20% of the American population suffers from sleep apnea, a chronic condition that causes repetitive stops in breathing and decreased oxygen levels while sleeping.

Now some are turning to surgery to help end the nightmare. Debbie Victor is one of them.

“I feel exhausted much of the time,” she said. “I feel like I could literally fall asleep.”

A sleep study revealed surprising results. Victor’s blood oxygen levels dropped to 66% at night, a number that should be in the high 90s.

“It’s a real problem. This puts a lot of stress on all our vital organs, and that’s why it can lead to increased risk of things like strokes and heart attacks,” said Dr. Michael Awad, Northwestern Medicine’s chief of sleep surgery. “And now we’ve seen increased literature that it is associated with increased Alzheimer’s risk.”

Victor is a cardiac sonographer who works long shifts at the hospital. She tried a CPAP machine and a dental device to help open her airway at night. Neither worked for her lifestyle.

“There’s this huge misnomer about sleep apnea because I think people relate it to obesity or chronic smoking. And really it’s airway anatomy,” Victor said.

The upper airway stimulator implant looks like a pacemaker for the heart but the Inspire device helps regulate the airway by targeting the source of the blockage in sleep apnea patients.

Awad implanted the device in Victor’s chest about a month ago.

“This device gets implanted in the lower chest and then there is a lede that is connected to this which stimulates the nerve controlling the tongue," Awad said. “That pushes the tongue forward opening the airway and stops that repetitive obstruction that’s happening during sleep.”

After connecting one lede to the nerve in the tongue, Awad attached another between Victor’s ribs.

“That lede is detecting breathing, sending a signal to the device and then stimulating the airway to open in line with breathing,” Awad said.

Four weeks after the procedure and once the incisions had healed, Awad officially fired up the device during an office visit. As he increased the level of stimulation on the nerve, Victor could feel her tongue move on its own.

“I could feel it,” she said. “I could feel the pressure in the back. It wasn’t painful. It was interesting, but it was enough to know it was working.”

At home, Victor will use a remote control to turn on the device each night before bed.

“Anybody who is suffering from sleep apnea who hasn’t had success with traditional other therapies or those looking to get off of CPAP may be considered for this type of procedure,” Awad said.

The device's battery, located in the patient's chest, lasts about 10 to 12 years and then will have to be replaced.

There are risks associated with the procedure, including tongue numbness or weakness, which can be permanent. But Awad said they are rare.

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