At Charité -- Universitätsmedizin Berlin the first tongue pacemaker was implanted Europe-wide that prevents pauses in breathing during sleep and helps protects against snoring. Physicians at the Department of Otolaryngology used the device for a patient who suffers from obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. In this, at times life-threatening illness, pauses in breathing can occur when the upper throat muscles are excessively relaxed during sleep. As a result, parts of the respiratory tract narrow and the person has difficulty breathing. The typical snoring noises occur when the affected person tries with great effort to get air through the blocked airways.
The neurostimulator is somewhat smaller than a box of matches and is implanted, like a heart pacemaker, underneath the collarbone. From there, an ultrathin cable leads to the bottom edge of the ribcage where diaphragm movement is measured and individual breathing frequency is monitored. When the patient inhales and his diaphragm contracts, the pacemaker sends a weak electrical impulse via a second cable to the hypoglossal nerve. This nerve is located directly under the tongue and is responsible for contraction of the tongue muscle. When it is stimulated, the tongue does not relax and block the airway, but stays in the sleeping person's uppermost part of the pharynx, i.e. in his mouth. Thus life-threatening pauses in breathing are prevented.
Somnologist and sleep researcher Dr. Alexander Blau emphasizes that the neurostimulator is a significant step in treating sleep apnea. Compared to previous therapies using special breathing masks, the patients' nocturnal movements are no longer restricted. "The patient has regained a piece of his quality of life. Before he goes to bed, he can simply turn on the device with a small remote control." Dr. Blau is confident that further implantations will be just as successful.
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