‘Tongue pacemaker’ minimally invasive method to correct sleep apnea, FDA says

A new procedure approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this summer can correct sleep apnea in patients who are averse to undergoing surgery.

The hypoglossal nerve stimulator, a device that measures about 4 by 4 centimeters, acts as a “pacemaker for the tongue,” is inserted below the clavicle, and has two wires— one connecting the chest musculature and the other to the back of the tongue. Every time the user tries to breathe, the sensory lead recognizes the muscles contracting and signals the tongue to move, thus not blocking the airway.

Sleep apnea is a common disorder that involves short pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep— sometimes 30 times or more per hour. Usually, normal breathing begins then starts again either with a loud snort or choking sound, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Developers say the pacemaker technique is less painful than past sleep apnea therapies because it does not require cutting inside the mouth or throat, which can make swallowing painful. Those procedures can cause patients to lose 15 to 20 pounds post-surgery because they impair the ability to eat.

“This uses the body’s own mechanics to enhance the muscles so that there is decreased floppiness of tissues while patients sleep. The muscles tense up and it gets those tissues out of the way so the patient can actually breathe,” Dr. Mas Takashima, director of The Sinus Center at Baylor College of Medicine and associate professor of medicine in the department of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at Baylor, told FoxNews.com. “It’s essentially utilizing the natural physiology of the body, and it’s giving it a little extra push.”

Takashima will be the first sleep surgeon in the Houston area to perform the procedure, which will take place at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Another advantage of the method is that it is reversible, and patients can turn it on and off during the day with a remote. The device has a battery life of 10 years.

According to the NIH, sleep apnea has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, heart failure and irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias.