This Electronic Sleep Apnea Cure Is Like Auto-Pilot for Breathing

Illustration for article titled This Electronic Sleep Apnea Cure Is Like Auto-Pilot for Breathing

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]

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Michael Walsh

I have used a cpap for some years now, and while it was a major hassle at first I'm accustomed to it now, and going to sleep without it now feels odd. I'm sure this device will be a godsend for those who just can't handle the cpap. However, one point: the report says the zapper can reduce apnea by 70%, which is very good. But when I had my first sleep study I stopped breathing roughly 100 times per hour! With this new device I would stop breathing once every 2 minutes; better but still a ways to go. Although I probably won't need it, I look forward to hearing more about this unit.