Can an implanted tongue-stimulating device curb your sleep apnea?

Loud snoring, grunts, and gasps can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, a serious disorder that causes repeated, brief pauses in breathing (apneas) throughout the night. It can leave people drowsy and depressed, and put them at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health problems.

If this sounds like you or a bed partner, a recent spate of advertisements for a mask-free treatment for the disorder may catch your attention. Known medically as a hypoglossal nerve stimulator, the pacemaker-like device moves the tongue forward during sleep. That helps reopen a collapsed airway — the root cause of obstructive sleep apnea. But how does it compare with other treatments, and who might be a good candidate?

Marketed under the name Inspire, the device was approved by the FDA in 2014. It’s a second-choice therapy intended only for people who can’t tolerate positive airway pressure (known as PAP or CPAP), according to Dr. Rohit Budhiraja, a pulmonary and sleep specialist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

A second-choice therapy for sleep apnea

“Sleep apnea causes the muscles in the back of the throat to collapse, which leads to pauses in breathing that wake you up again and again,” he says. PAP, the gold standard therapy for sleep apnea, prevents airway collapse by using a small bedside machine attached to tubing that blows air through a face mask.

This can improve a measurement called the apnea-hypoxia index (AHI) by approximately 90%, lowering it below 5 in most people. The AHI is a score that gauges the severity of sleep apnea. An AHI between 5 and 14 is considered mild; between 15 and 29 is moderate; 30 and higher is severe.

Targeting tongue muscles is less effective

Inspire targets only the muscles of the tongue rather than the entire airway, so it isn’t as effective as PAP. In fact, the company’s stated treatment goal is to lower a person’s AHI by just 50% (or below 20), although some people may do better.

Because PAP is more effective, sleep specialists encourage people to stick with it by trying different strategies. But research suggests a quarter to a third of people have a hard time using PAP (see here and here). When that’s the case, Inspire may be an alternative, says Dr. Budhiraja.

Who might consider hypoglossal nerve stimulation?

In addition to trying PAP without success, you also must

  • have moderate to severe sleep apnea (an AHI score of 15 to 65)
  • have a body mass index (BMI) of 32 or lower (although some centers allow BMI values as high as 35), which means the device is not right for people in some weight ranges.

At home, you use a small remote control to turn the device on at night and off in the morning. The remote is set to gradually increase the level of stimulation once or twice a week as tolerated until you reach the highest level. You then return to the sleep lab for a study to determine your optimal range. The remote is then programmed to that range.

Some people start noticing a difference in their sleep quality even at the lowest levels of stimulation. Yearly checks are recommended thereafter, and the replaceable battery lasts about 11 years. Medicare and most major insurance plans cover Inspire.

Once it’s working, hypoglossal nerve stimulation is definitely convenient: no maintenance, cleaning, or buying supplies as required with a PAP machine. “But because Inspire is less effective, it’s not considered a replacement for PAP,” says Dr. Budhiraja.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

2 Corinthians 13:9 For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.

Colossians 1:28 We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.

Colossians 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God.

2 Corinthians 10:15-16 not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another.

2 Thessalonians 1:3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater;

2 Peter 3:18 but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

Ephesians 1:17-18 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,

Ephesians 3:16-19 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, read more

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