Can A Pacemaker Cure Sleep Apnea?

Testing on a new sleep apnea treatment is showing promise.  The research studies putting a pacemaker in the chest with a sensing unit in the chest and one wire to deliver stimulation in the upper airway near the mouth and throat.  Initial testing shows lower the sleep apnea incidents and increased blood oxygen levels at night.  That's the good news.

  The bad news is that this technology is still in testing.  The other issue is the surgery required to implant the device.  This device requires a minor surgical procedure that carries a low risk reports show.  However, this is worse than the alternative treatment which requires no surgery.  Using a CPAP is a safe and effective treatment so this pacemaker based technology is riskier than the current treatment.  

  If this new procedure requires surgery, is riskier, and will likely be more expensive why develop the new procedure?  Using a CPAP is a hard adjustment, which is why researchers are developing this treatment.  40% of CPAP users stop using their CPAP because it is so hard.

 Problems With Current Treatment

A CPAP is a machine that provides pressurized air to keep the airway open during sleep.  It requires a machine to pressurize the air, a hose, and a mask.  Sometimes a humidifier is also used.  The problems come largely from two areas - the mask rubbing the face and the hose interfering with sleep.

  The the mask needs to form an airtight seal which means a tight fit.  This tight fit rubs the nose in tender spots at first and can rub the nose raw.  This hurts and can wake up sleepers as they adjust to their CPAP. 

  The next issue is the hose which can get wrapped around the body or just get lodged under the body.  Depending on how soundly you sleep, this can wake you several times a night.  Get the hose above the sleeper and many of the hose issues will go away.  There are special stands and pillows that can help with this or you can attach a D ring on your headboard and route the hose through the ring.

 How it Works

The new system senses when you breathe and delivers stimulation to the upper airway. This stimulation causes the airway to stay open while you breath.  Since obstructive sleep apnea is when the airway closes during sleep, this new technology looks promising.

Who May Benefit

This new technology doesn't look like a replacement for current solutions.  While it does seem effective, it reduces the amount of times a sleeper stops breathing, but it does not end it.  It also increases blood oxygen levels but it doesn't bring them up to normal levels through the night.  This looks like a good option for people who, for whatever reason, can't use a CPAP.  If the choice is between not  treating sleep apnea and using this implanted device, using this device is likely the better option.  

Who May Not Benefit

If you use a CPAP and sleep well this probably isn't the best option.  Every surgery involves risk and cost.  The risks range from complications with the surgery to complications with the implanted system.  Things as simple as screws in bones can cause problems as an example.  The cost of surgery is high because of the staff, hospital, operating room, and the pacemaker.  Pacemakers can cost over $20,000 so it is possible this implanted pacemaker alone could cost ten times the price of a CPAP machine.  


For those who can't tolerate a CPAP this technology has promise and could offer relief from sleep apnea.  If the choice is between sleep apnea and this system it is probably wise to consider the system.  If a CPAP machine is an option, it is a good option because doesn't need surgery and is probably less expensive than this therapy.