Breakthrough treatment for sleep apnea patients

Breakthrough treatment for sleep apnea patients

For the past decade, Barbara Stellwagen has tried everything to get a restful night’s sleep. From air forced down her nose and throat while she slept, to mouth guards that kept her jaw moved forward, to having the inside of her throat surgically reshaped, nothing seemed to curb her severe case of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Nothing, that is, until now. 

This past spring, Barbara was the first person in the nation to participate in the clinical study Targeted Hypoglossal Neurostimulation Study, which was only recently approved for clinical trials by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The technology, developed by the privately-held company, ImThera Medical, Inc. of San Diego, provides a unique approach to correcting OSA by stimulating certain muscles of the tongue to keep it “awake” while Barbara sleeps. This stimulation prevents the tongue from dropping back into her throat, creating the obstruction that causes her to stop breathing during sleep. 

“OSA has a lot to do with tongue position,” says Dr. Michael Friedman, the ear, nose and throat specialist who performed Barbara’s procedure at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. “During sleep, the tongue falls back and blocks the airway. The clinical trials are being done to determine if, by placing an electrode around a person’s hypoglossal nerve—the main nerve in the tongue—you can effectively keep it stimulated and toned, so it doesn’t fall back.” 

The electrode is surgically placed through a small incision on the neck and is connected to a battery pack, which is placed beneath the skin on the patient’s chest. A remote control is then used to turn the system on at night and off upon waking. 

Dr. Friedman says the therapy currently under study is very promising, having already been tested in Europe.

“This is an exciting new approach to sleep apnea,” he says. “This may offer us another option to treat those suffering from the most severe cases of OSA. There are literally millions of people who are unable to tolerate the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure).” 

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, more than 12 million American adults suffer from some form of OSA, with most going undiagnosed or untreated. Sleep apnea can lead to serious health complications, including: 

  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Heart failure
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Stroke
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes

The clinical study is occurring at multiple locations throughout the country and expects to involve nearly 60 patients. Results from this study will be submitted to the FDA for considerations on further clinical trials.

Barbara says before having the new treatment, she was often fatigued during the day, as well as difficulty concentrating on tasks and just getting up in the morning. Now, she has a new lease on life.

“I’m sleeping better now than I think I ever have in my life,” Barbara says. “I actually fall asleep and wake up in the same position. It’s been amazing.”

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  1. I have been dealing with this issue now for some time and am extremely interested in speaking with someone else about this. I use a Cpap but am having extreme sinusits issues and am unable to tolerate the direct air in my nose which seems hypersensitive much like allergies.If I sleep without my machine I am miserable and develop anxiety that affects my neck and back muscles. I am curious as to how many others have been given a fibromayalgia or unexplained neck pain diagnosis over the years that could well be related to this issue with the tongue.

    • I want to try this . I have been on a cpap for nearly 10 yrs and it is so aggravating at night I can’t sleep on my back only on my right side .

  2. I’m 37 and have been suffering from this for at least seven years if not longer. I’m not overweight and nothing I have tried really helps except the machine. And I hate the machine! It’s terrible and uncomfortable and awkward. Please contact me with more information.

  3. You can learn more about this treatment and the doctor mentioned in the article, Dr. Michael Friedman, here:

  4. Steve O'Leary June 7, 2015 at 8:23 pm · Reply

    I’m interested in this procedure

  5. Steve O'Leary June 7, 2015 at 8:24 pm · Reply

    Contact me please

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.