Some individuals stop breathing hundreds of times each night, often waking and gasping for air without even knowing it. In the morning, most wake up feeling exhausted, and often feel groggy throughout the day. The condition is called sleep apnea, and many people may go years without being properly diagnosed.
Sleep apnea occurs when the tissue at the back of the throat, the soft palate, relaxes during sleep and blocks the airway. Because the tissue vibrates, the condition can also lead to loud snoring.
Emory Crawford Long Hospital now offers a new solution - a minimally-invasive, less painful outpatient procedure to treat the condition. Called the Pillar Procedure, doctors implant three tiny polyester inserts into the patient's soft palate. The inserts act like pillars to add structural support to the soft palate, thus preventing the palate from drooping and vibrating during sleep.
Within several months, the tissue around the implants firms up, strengthening the soft palate. Once implanted, the inserts are invisible, cannot be felt by the patient and do not interfere with swallowing or speech functions.
"This procedure is really making a difference in patients with sleep apnea," says Alpen Patel, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat -- ENT), Emory University School of Medicine. "With this alternative procedure, patients can avoid undergoing more invasive surgeries, especially when they cannot tolerate wearing a mask at night for continuous positive airway pressure. Most patients find this procedure virtually painless and can resume normal activities and diet the same day." Continuous positive airway pressure is also referred to as CPAP.
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 12 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Risk factors include being a male, being overweight and over the age of 40, but sleep apnea can strike anyone at any age, even children. Untreated sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases, memory problems, weight gain, impotency and headaches. Moreover, untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for job impairment and motor vehicle crashes.
The Pillar Procedure is designed for patients with snoring or mild to moderate sleep apnea, and can be used in combination with other treatment options. Should patients have any complications with the implants, they can be removed or reinserted. Other benefits of the procedure include less recovery time with fewer follow-up visits and lower overall treatment costs. The Pillar Procedure, developed by Restore Medical, is the first FDA-approved implantable treatment for mild to moderate sleep apnea.
"The palate pillar implant procedure is a safe, effective in-office procedure which is certainly helpful in treating carefully selected patients who suffer from snoring or sleep apnea," says Dr. Patel. "Since many patients are satisfied with the results of this minimally-invasive technique, it's no surprise that it is growing in interest."