A Novel Way to Treat Sleep Apnea

Joy Helminski was first diagnosed with sleep apnea six years ago and was prescribed a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. With her small features, she had difficulty finding a mask to fit her face. 

“My doctor said I’d have more energy, feel better, and that the CPAP would help my blood pressure,” said Helminski, who lives in League City, Texas. “I still felt tired all the time, and I’d go in and tell him that nothing was different.”

About a year ago, Helminski learned about the Inspire® hypoglossal nerve stimulator a device can be loosely described as a “pacemaker” that helps with sleep apnea. The small device is placed under the skin during a short procedure, and then delivers gentle stimulation to key airway muscles during sleep, allowing the airway to remain open. All the patient has to do is activate it with a small remote before going to sleep.

Helminski found otolaryngologists Michael Byrd, MD, and J. Caleb Simmons, MD, the only two physicians in the Houston area who were performing the procedure at the time. Both are affiliated with Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital, not far from her home. She called the office in December 2017 and made an appointment.

“About 50 percent of people with sleep apnea diagnosed by a sleep study are unable to tolerate CPAP,” said Dr. Simmons, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “They have increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as risk of car- or work-related incidents due to lack of good sleep.”

The outpatient procedure takes about two hours, and most patients do not require antibiotics or steroids after surgery. Pain can be controlled using over-the-counter pain relief medications.

“There’s a 30-minute ramp-up period to allow the patient to fall asleep before the stimulator is activated. Every night the patient turns the stimulation level one click higher until it reaches the maximum range we’ve set,” said Dr. Simmons. “Two months after the surgery, the patient returns to the sleep lab for a study while using the device. Sleep technologists adjust the stimulation to get the best possible sleep result.”

Helminski’s procedure took place at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital. Since then, physicians affiliated with both Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center and Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center have begun offering it, creating wide availability in the Greater Houston area for patients who may qualify for the device.

“Within two weeks after the device was activated, I felt like the sun had come out,” said Helminski, who is 67. “I’ve been a light sleeper all my life, and the device has improved the quality of my sleep. The difference in how I feel is amazing! I don’t have that dragging feeling at 10 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon. I get home from work and still have a lot of energy.”

For more information on Memorial Hermann’s  Sleep Centers in Houston, as well as sleeping disorder diagnoses, please click here.

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Ali Vise