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FDA-approved device treats sleep apnea in a new way

Loud snoring, sore throats, excessive drowsiness — all common signs of a disorder called sleep apnea that affects an estimated 18 million Americans. For those who’ve yet to find a treatment that works for them, there may be hope on the horizon: the FDA has approved a sleep apnea “pacemaker” that could change how the condition is managed.

Often, sleep apnea is caused when muscles in the tongue and throat relax too much during sleep, which in turn causes airways to collapse or be obstructed. This new device ensures that muscles stay in place by sensing breathing patterns and delivering electric stimulation to nerves — similar to the way a pacemaker controls a heartbeat.

“This therapy represents a major advance in sleep apnea treatment,” Dr. Meir Kryger from the Yale School of Medicine said in a release. “Patients with moderate to severe [obstructive sleep apnea] who are not on effective treatment are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, accidents and death. There is a significant need for safe, effective and well-tolerated new treatments in the sleep medicine field.”

Other treatments for sleep apnea include oral appliances, positional therapy and surgery — but breathing masks that provide a continuous flow of air are the current leading treatment for the condition. Despite their popularity, these masks are not consistently successful, as some patients feel claustrophobic or accidentally rip them off at night.

Jim Heston, a 61-year-old with obstructive sleep apnea, had tried using one of these breathing masks for relief — but the treatment failed.

“I didn’t think it was going to get a whole lot better at that point,” he said.

But Heston recently had the opportunity to be fitted with the implant. Although it took some getting used to, Heston has noticed a definite improvement. He’s gone from waking up nearly once a minute to about seven times an hour.

“It’s allowed my wife to sleep better, and that’s a good thing. I felt good, I felt normal, I felt well-rested. It was something I haven’t felt in a while. It was a good feeling,” he said.

It seems that Heston isn’t alone — according to Inspire Medical Systems, the company that makes the device, patients who participated in clinical trials experienced a 68% percent reduction in apnea events.

The new therapy will be commercially available to U.S. patients in the second half of 2014.

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