SALT LAKE CITY — Lone Peak Hospital’s Dr. Kevin Wilson became the first surgeon in Salt Lake City to perform a surgical implant procedure to treat sleep apnea. The treatment provides a revolutionary way for sleep apnea patients to manage their condition if they aren’t able to control it with the help of a CPAP machine.
Around 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, according to CBS News, which puts them at a heightened risk of heart disease, memory loss, stroke, diabetes, and more.
“Sleep apnea is basically where the soft tissues of the throat collapse during deep sleep, so the tongue falls back and the soft tissues collapse and block the airway,” Wilson explained. “Patients stop breathing, and the body has to wake them up enough for them to start breathing again. The problem with that is it prevents them from getting a deep and refreshing sleep because their bodies are waking them up all the time.”
CPAP machines work by forcing air down the throat, so when patients breathe, the airways are blown open. Though the CPAP is rather bulky, Intermountain’s Dr. Maya Thomas, a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist, believes that it’s still the best option for most patients.
“A lot of times if you give them the right pressure and the right mask, the CPAP patients feel good,” she said. “There are a lot of ‘ifs’ on the surgery, which is why [patients] will settle for the mask.”
Despite Thomas’s best efforts, for some patients, the CPAP simply doesn’t work, and it’s in those where the Inspire treatment is very useful. James Morales, 41, was one such patient.
Morales is a sleep apnea patient who received the Inspire treatment. He told UCHealth that he, “Would wake up and feel exhausted. I didn’t want to do anything. I’d come downstairs and sit. At work, I had trouble focusing and concentrating. Lots of people were relying on me and asking me questions, but I just couldn’t think.”
Morales couldn’t sleep restfully with the CPAP, and, after exhausting all of his other options throughout years of experimenting with different treatments, he finally decided to try the surgical solution and get an Inspire device implanted. After a lengthy insurance discussion and evaluations to ensure he qualified for the surgery, Morales successfully had the Inspire implanted.
“This device works in a different way to keep the airway open,” Wilson explained. “It basically uses the body’s natural muscles to open the airway.”
The device is made up of three components, according to Wilson. First, the sensor wire tracks each time the patient takes a breath. A generator with a battery helps drive the device, and it has a stimulating wire. The stimulator connects to the hypoglossal nerve, which is a nerve that moves the tongue.
“It helps you stick your tongue out, speak, swallow, and things like that,” Wilson explained. “Every time it senses that the patient takes a breath, it sends a little impulse along that nerve to the tongue to help it stiffen and stick forward, which then opens up the airway to allow the breath to pass through.”
“Everything has changed,” Morales told UCHealth. “Now, I wake up and feel like I can do something. I’m going back to school, which I was afraid of doing before because I couldn’t focus. I go up snowboarding without worrying about falling asleep on the way home.”
Wilson is ecstatic about the new option.
“When this treatment came around, I was very excited about it because it offered great outcomes without all the pain. It’s a quick, outpatient surgery that can be life-changing.”
The New England Journal of Medicine published a study which found that 68 percent of patients’ sleep apnea had improved after getting the implant.
Despite its success, Inspire is not for everyone.
“There are specific criteria that patients have to meet in order to be a candidate for this procedure,” Wilson said.
Inspire is only for moderate to severe sleep apnea cases and, like all surgeries, there is risk of infection. According to CBS News, the cost of the device is around $20,000, not including the surgery.
Wilson hopes that someday soon the treatment may be expanded to other patients, or modified treatments may become available. “We’re just getting started,” he said. “We’ve done about five surgeries so far and we have a couple more scheduled soon.”
“Since the 1970s, we haven’t gotten anything better than the CPAP, and I think Inspire is the one showing good promise so far,” Thomas said.
She added that she would like to see people with mild cases of sleep apnea have access to the treatment as well. “Someone can have a lower apnea index and still experience a lot of fatigue. It affects each person differently,” she said.
Salt Lake City residents interested in the treatment can attend a free community information session at Lone Peak Hospital in Building 1 on Tuesday, March 12, at 6:30 p.m. in Draper.