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History of Sleep Apnea: From the Old to the New in Treatment

Posted On January 20, 2014
January 20, 2014

Most people during their school years were required to read one or more novels by Charles Dickens, probably nine times out of 10 it was “Great Expectations.” Very few of us have picked up and read “The Pickwick Papers.” If you read this somewhat obscure Dickens novel, you might have discovered a description of a condition that sounds a lot like sleep apnea. In fact, a 20th Century physician coined the first name given to what we now call sleep apnea, Pickwickian syndrome. Subsequently, there was a long gap in the history of sleep apnea, the problem that afflicts people with an obstruction to proper breathing at night. It wouldn’t be until 1965 that the medical literature next mentioned what became known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The disorder is now defined as unconscious pauses in breathing, which can range from a few seconds to minutes, and occur as little as five to greater than 30 times per hour throughout a night’s sleep. With OSA, there is a soft tissue obstruction of the upper airway, which negatively impacts the flow of air.

Flash to the 1980s

Around 1980, the first continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine was introduced as treatment for OSA. This treatment option via mask uses pressurized air to open the airway so that the obstruction does not interfere with breathing. Although CPAP treatment has evolved into what can be described as the “gold standard” of OSA therapy, compliance is a big issue. Although the CPAP decreases the symptoms associated with OSA like snoring, daytime sleepiness, fatigue, memory concerns and concentration, the sufferer has to wear a bulky mask at night while he or she sleeps.

With the lack of compliance as an issue, OSA sufferers have sought out other treatment options so that they can feel better and improve their quality of life. They are as follows:

New and Improved

There is a relatively new and innovative option available to individuals who have been diagnosed with OSA: radiofrequency ablation (RFA). In 2013, this sleep apnea cure became available at Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America (SATCOA). Ten years ago, RFA was performed in a hospital setting but now it is offered as a minimally invasive procedure occurring in a physician’s office with a device that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is a safe, effective alternative to traditional sleep apnea treatment.

RFA works by directing small amounts of temperature-controlled and targeted energy to the base of the tongue in the back of the throat. Following the procedure, the treated area heals; tissue is tightened and thus reduced in size. This tightening and reduction directly prevents the tongue from blocking the airway while one sleeps, reducing and virtually eliminating sleep apnea.  One hundred percent of RFA patients experience some improvement.

Recently a new device made headlines when the associated research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Implanted in the OSA sufferer’s chest, this pacemaker-like device prompts a nerve in the jaw to keep the upper airway open so that breathing can occur without being hampered by an obstruction. Although the data was promising with a decrease in the number of breathing pauses in an hour and an increase in blood oxygen levels, 33 percent of the participants did not see an improvement. This treatment option is not currently available for sleep apnea sufferers as it is still undergoing clinical trials, and so the device has not been approved by the FDA. In addition, only a small group of people with OSA would benefit from this treatment option:

  • Patients with less than a 32 body mass index
  • Patients whose airway is obstructed behind the tongue

If you believe that you might have sleep apnea and would like to discover your best treatment option, please contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 or schedule a free consultation.


About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Communications for Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America, manages all content and communications for the company.
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