Sarah Goodwin

Kathi Ovnic
Holly Korschun
December 17, 1998


Using a simple new outpatient procedure, Emory University physicians soon will be able to eliminate airway obstructions in patients suffering from sleep apnea, a debilitating sleep and breathing disorder affecting more than 20 million Americans.

Sleep apnea causes patients to frequently stop breathing during sleep due to excess tissue that blocks the upper airway. Not only does the condition lead to excessive daytime sleepiness with consequences such as a higher risk of automobile accidents, it also is associated with significantly increased rates of cardiovascular disease, including 38,000 cardiac deaths annually.

In early January 1999, Emory ENT physicians Todd Kingdom and John Del Gaudio will be among the first physicians in the country to use the Somnoplasty System, a new technique recently cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat obstructive sleep apnea. The physicians have been successfully using the Somnoplasty System at Emory since last spring to treat patients with habitual snoring (uvula and soft palate) and chronic nasal obstruction (enlarged inferior turbinates) caused by excess and enlarged tissues.

The Somnoplasty System treats patients with sleep apnea by shrinking soft tissue in the upper airway including the base of the tongue, which is the source of obstruction most difficult to treat. During the procedure, which takes about 30 to 45 minutes in a doctor's office, a topical or local anesthetic is given to numb the treated area and a tiny electrode is inserted into the enlarged tissue. The electrode uses low-level radiofrequency energy to generate heat, without burning, at temperatures between 75° C (167°F) and 85°C (185°F). The heat creates finely controlled lesions which coagulate and are naturally absorbed in approximately three to eight weeks. By reducing excess tissue volume, the treatment opens the airway. More than one treatment may be necessary to achieve optimal results.

"The Somnoplasty procedure for obstructive sleep apnea is intended to increase the size of the upper airway by shrinking the excess tissue that blocks the airway during sleep," said Dr. Kingdom. "The treatment is designed to spare the surface tissues, thereby minimizing pain. Patients treated with the Somnoplasty System may experience faster recovery or less pain than with surgical procedures."

Traditional therapy for obstructive sleep apnea includes nightly use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), in which a mask is fitted over the patient's nose and air is forcibly delivered by a pump. CPAP is effective, but many patients find the mask uncomfortable and embarrassing, and often suffer from side effects including nasal congestion, sore eyes, headaches and abdominal bloating. Surgical methods for treating obstructive sleep apnea are invasive and involve reducing the size of the tongue through surgery, moving the tongue or the jaw forward, or bypassing the airway obstruction through a tracheostomy, the opening of an airway through the neck.


Obstructive sleep apnea is the cessation of breathing for ten seconds or more (an apnea) at least five times per hour of sleep. Repeated apneas and arousals deprive obstructive sleep apnea patients of healthy sleep and force their cardiovascular systems to work harder. During sleep, the body's muscles relax, which can cause excess tissues to collapse into the upper airway (back of the mouth, nose and throat) and block breathing. When breathing is interrupted, the body reacts by waking just enough to start breathing again. These arousals may occur hundreds of times each night but they do not fully awaken the patient, who remains unaware of the loud snoring and gasping for air typically associated with obstructive sleep apnea. Habitual snoring is often a precursor of more serious upper airway disorders. Results from a recent study indicate that one in three men and nearly one in five women who snore habitually suffer from some degree of obstructive sleep apnea.


Patients interested in contacting an Emory physician about the Somnoplasty procedure may call 404-778-3939, or Emory Health Connection at 404-778-7777.

For more general information on The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, call Health Sciences Communication's Office at 404-727-5686, or send e-mail to

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