New Surgical Solution to Life-Threatening Sleep Apnea

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Jill Chadwick

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             It’s estimated one in five people suffer from sleep apnea and don’t know it.  They might not even snore, which can be a leading symptom.  That was the case for Ron Hofmann who suffered for several years with chronic exhaustion and a growing memory loss.  It was his memory loss that led him to get testing and where he learned he was oxygen deprived from sleep apnea.  Doctors told him his sleep test showed he stopped breathing so often … it was life-threatening. 

            “I’m not afraid of much,” Ron Hofmann of Kansas City said.  “But when they told me it was ‘life-threatening’, that gets your attention.

            Ron tried many therapies for correcting his sleep apnea including the gold standard CPAP machine.  “He sounded like Darth Vader,” Jane Signorelli his wife said. “He would push it on his forehead during sleep and alarms would go off … it was difficult for him and me.”

            Ron was referred to Dr. Suzanne Stevens, neurologist, director of Sleep Medicine at The University of Kansas Hospital, who told him about a surgical option to correct his sleep apnea. The new technology was a small device called “Inspire” implanted under the skin with wires to stimulate the hypoglossal nerve. Much like a pacemaker, Inspire runs on batteries with a remote to turn it on and off.  With sleep apnea, the tongue relaxes cutting off a patient’s airway.  CPAP machines keep the airway open by blowing air.  The stimulator sends a signal to the tongue to thrust it forward to keep it from blocking the body’s oxygen supply.  “It’s an amazing godsend for some people,” Dr. Stevens said.

            Dr. Chris Larsen, ENT surgeon at The University of Kansas Hospital has helped seven patients to date like Hofmann by implanting Inspire. Because it takes an integrated team like Dr. Larsen and Dr. Stevens working together with the patient and a sleep lab, The University of Kansas Hospital is one of a handful of hospitals nationwide and the only place in the region to offer this treatment.  

             Doctors explain more about how Inspire works and how it is implanted in the video below.  Ron Hofmann and his wife share details of their story.  The b-roll includes surgery video and ‘fine tuning’ the stimulator with Hofmann in the sleep lab 30 days after the implant.