PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – For most people that have sleep apnea, the only solution has been a bulky, uncomfortable device.
It's the most popular thing doctors prescribe to treat it.
But users have long complained about other side effects, including everything from nasal congestion to ear pressure. So what if it could be replace with a much smaller device?
That's right, a tiny device, not much bigger than a fingertip. The new device is FDA approved and available right here in Pittsburgh.
So how does it work?
KDKA's Health Editor Dr. Maria Simbra has some answers.
Snoring is often a prominent sign of sleep apnea.
And it doesn't just have the potential ruin a person's night of sleep, it can also ruin their partner's.
This was certainly the case for Carl and Carol Massucci.
"There was a lot of nights he did snore," Carol Massucci said. "And I would wake up hearing him snore. I resorted to wearing earplugs."
Carl has sleep apnea, a problem where in which people stop breathing during sleep.
"It's scary when you're hearing your spouse next to you doing that," Massucci said. "It would scare me, because I knew he was getting oxygen deprivation."
The standardized treatment is a mask that delivers pressurized air, something called CPAP.
But it can be uncomfortable, clunky and difficult to use. Only 40 to 60 percent of people will actually wear it every night it for the long term.
"I had a lot of bad reactions to the mask," Carl Massucci said. "I have sensitive skin, if you wanna say, and I would break out underneath it. It was very inconvenient to travel with it. It wasn't very light, and for elderly people, I think it would be very hard to carry through an airport."
An alternative to the cumbersome CPAP device is a new option.
It's a pair of patches, worn over each nostril and it acts as a one-way valve, keeping the airway open with just enough pressure, as the wearer exhales against resistance.
"What that does is increase your lung volume and perhaps dilate those airways a little bit, to prevent sleep apnea, which is the collapsing of the airways while you sleep," Sleep Specialist Daniel Shade said.
The valve patches are disposable, kind of like contact lenses.
And studies done leading up to their FDA approval show that people tend to stick with them better than a mask.
Patients will get a 50 percent reduction a night they collapse their airway. And have pretty good compliance with the device at three to 12 months out.
But there are some downsides -- one is the price, insurance doesn't cover them so it can get pretty pricey.
"It's not that cheap, for me anyhow," Shade said. "It's a little over $2 a day to use it, there. A month's supply is roughly $70."
And the valves don't work as well.
"If you can tolerate CPAP, it cures your sleep apnea," Shade said. "There've been a lot of other methods that have been thought of and tried to treat sleep apnea, and nothing is as good as CPAP."
Even though it's less effective, it's better than nothing, especially when considering the associated increased risk of heart attack, stroke and sleep deprivation that comes with sleep apnea.
Carl has been using it for a couple months now and instead of waking up several times a night, he can now get six hours of straight, restful sleep.
"At the beginning it's a little difficult to wear," he said. "But it wasn't as hard to get used to as the machine."
Carol is thrilled.
"He does not snore as much as he did and I think he's getting more restful sleep," she said.
Other options beside a clunky mask include surgery and a specially-fitted mouth piece that's worn while sleeping.
These measures and the nose patches work about 50 percent of the time.
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