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%, 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]