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Surgical Solution to Life-Threatening Sleep Apnea

December 23, 2016

Kansas City, Kan. — One in five people suffer from sleep apnea and don't know it, according to an estimate by sleep experts. And some of those won't even have the tell-tale symptom: snoring. That was the case for Ron Hofmann of Kansas City, who suffered for several years with chronic exhaustion and a growing memory loss. It was the memory loss that led him to getting tested, which helped him learn he was oxygen deprived from sleep apnea. His physicians told him his sleep study showed he stopped breathing so frequently that it was life-threatening.

"I'm not afraid of much," Hofmann said, "but when they told me it was 'life-threatening,' that gets your attention."

Ron tried a number of therapies for correcting his sleep apnea, including the gold standard CPAP machine.

"He sounded like Darth Vader," Jane Signorelli, Hoffman's wife, said. "He would push it on his forehead during sleep and alarms would go off – it was difficult for him and me."

Ron was referred to Suzanne Stevens, MD, a neurologist and the director of Sleep Medicine at The University of Kansas Hospital, who told him about a surgical option to correct his condition. The new technology was a small, implantable device called Inspire, which is surgically placed under the skin with wires to stimulate the hypoglossal nerve while the patient sleeps. Much like a pacemaker, Inspire runs on batteries and has a remote to turn it on and off.

When a patient has sleep apnea, the tongue relaxes cutting off a patient's airway. CPAP machines resolve this by keeping the airway open through circulating air. When Inspire is turned on, the stimulator sends a signal to the tongue to thrust it forward to keep it from blocking the body's oxygen supply.

"It's an amazing godsend for some people," Dr. Stevens said.

The University of Kansas Hospital is one of a handful of hospitals nationwide, and the only hospital in the region, to offer this treatment.

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