Technology exists to serve humanity — but the people it should serve first are those who have to brave above-average or extraordinary trials just to get through their days.
Or, in this case, their nights. Sleep apnea is an almost shockingly common problem — One that 936 million people throughout the world must contend with as they settle into bed each night. That’s almost a billion patients, according to 2018 numbers, and nearly 10 times the number researchers previously estimated.
When it comes to treating this condition, physicians need every asset they can find. That’s what makes a new device, presented by researchers from Australia’s Flinders University, so exciting.
What Is Sleep Apnea, and What Causes It?
Sleep apnea is a disorder which causes the patient’s breathing to start and stop repeatedly while they sleep. Many people suffer from the condition without even knowing it. That makes recognizing the symptoms critical, as leaving the condition untreated raises one’s risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes.
The signs of sleep apnea run from mild to severe. They include loud snoring, sleepiness, and fatigue during the daytime, as well as sleeping “successfully” at night without feeling refreshed the next day. Headaches in the morning may also present, along with changes in mood, depression and worsening performance at school or work.
Even though sleep apnea is a common and potentially life-threatening condition, sleep “hygiene” in general is a fairly new medical discipline. If you suffer from sleep apnea, you may experience up to 30 episodes per hour where your breathing stops and starts. If you share a bed with a partner and they regularly complain about your snoring or have indicated you seem to be in distress while asleep, it’s time to see a doctor.
Why Researchers Are Proposing a New Approach
There are many risk factors for sleep apnea, and they can vary from person to person. That’s part of what makes the work at the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health at Flinders University so compelling. It proposes a way to come to personalized conclusions about the severity and causes of each patient’s case and to develop customized treatments that improve outcomes, reduce the invasiveness of surgeries and the time required for recovery and stand a higher chance at improving patients’ lives.
There are three types — obstructive, central and complex — and they can affect people of all ages, including children. Here are some of the most common causes:
- Excess weight and obesity
- Narrowed airways — sometimes a genetic factor, sometimes resulting from enlarged tonsils or adenoids
- Gender — men suffer from sleep apnea more commonly than women
- Habitual use of alcohol or tranquilizers
- A history of nasal congestion
- Heart disease or stroke
Given the many variables at play here, the medical community has long been overdue for a “game-changer” in sleep apnea treatment. The Flinders University researchers believe they may have found it.
It’s not a device for patients to wear as they sleep, like a CPAP mask, which helps manage rather than treat the symptoms of sleep apnea. Instead, it’s a device for helping pinpoint the proximate cause of a patient’s difficulties with sleeping.
This new device is a type of catheter containing a tiny camera along with temperature and pressure sensors. Physicians insert this catheter into a patient’s throat through their nostrils to determine the location of blockages with greater accuracy than ever. The data and insights gathered using this device could lead to far more accurate diagnoses followed by personalized treatment, up to and including surgery to remove the blockage. It provides, in other words, real-time analysis into where a patient’s sleep difficulties are coming from. There is presently nothing else like it on the market.
“It could make a big difference to patient outcomes,” said Alex Wall, one of the researchers.
One of his colleagues, Professor Simon Carney, agreed: “[Patients] won’t need as big an operation, they’ll be in less pain and [experience] less morbidity afterward, and everyone’s happy.”
When Will the Device Become Available?
Human trials are underway now in Australia. Researchers are hopeful they’ll see their invention come to market within three years.
Although, as we’ve noted, sleep apnea sometimes arrives alongside old age or manifests as a side effect of other health problems like strokes, there are lifestyle choices in the mix here too. Heavy use of alcohol, sedatives and tranquilizers can raise one’s risk of developing sleep apnea — and so can poor dietary choices. Obesity, including excess fat and tissue in the neck and vicinity of the airways, contributes significantly to the risk of sleep apnea. Given that obesity is a legitimate public health emergency in much of the world, it’s not surprising researchers have observed a corresponding rise in sleep apnea cases.
What the Flinders University researchers propose here is not a cure for sleep apnea nor a means of preventing it. It’s a breakthrough, though, to be sure, and one which promises to make treatment more targeted and effective. Patients suffering from sleep apnea often require surgery and may even need to continue using a CPAP machine after the procedure. Nevertheless, this is a promising step forward for this relatively new branch of medicine and a positive sign of things to come.