Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center doctors may have found treatment for central sleep apnea

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For years, millions of Americans — and even more people worldwide — have been hoping for a viable treatment for central sleep apnea. Thanks to some local Triad doctors, help may not be far ahead.

Central sleep apnea is a disorder where the brain doesn’t send signals to the lungs telling them to breathe during sleep. Doctors estimate that one to two million Americans suffer from the disorder, but say many more may not be aware they have the disorder. Many people who have been diagnosed found out they were not breathing during sleep thanks to their spouses or other loved ones.

“I would wake up in the middle of the night and Glenn, I couldn’t hear him breathe, and that was the scary part,” said Susan Myers, who first noticed her husband wasn’t breathing during sleep around this time last year. “It was a concern, a major concern, realizing he could just go to sleep and not wake up.”

Glenn was diagnosed with central sleep apnea, which differs from the more common type of sleep apnea; obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is where the muscles in patients’ airways collapse during sleep. It is commonly treated by wearing masks which cause the patients to continue breathing during sleep, however, experts say that treatment is not as effective for patients with central sleep apnea.

“When you’re under water and you’ve been without breath — and then you come up and you’re just gasping for breath — that’s the similar sensation,” said Glenn.

Due to the lack of oxygen, Glenn began having heart complications and feared that other organs would begin to shut down.

“I’m thinking, well, oxygen’s a good thing. Oxygen deprivation is not a good thing,” he said.

Glenn and Susan came in contact with doctors at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, who were conducting a trial of a device that could be the answer Glenn, Susan and other patients with the disorder have been searching for.

The trial consists of implanting a device, similar to a pacemaker, into the chests of patients. Along with Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, only one other center in the state is conducting the study; along with 23 others in the nation and seven others worldwide.

“What this device does is it takes over for the brain and it stimulates the lungs to breathe,” said Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center’s Dr. Michael N. Drucker.  “We’ve been doing the same thing for the heart for decades and that’s pretty much why they called on us to be the implanters of this device.”

Along with Glenn, two other Forsyth Medical Center patients have had the device implanted. The study hopes to implant a combined total of 173 patients with the device throughout all 32 sites by next March. When the patients lay down, the device kicks on.

“What I feel is actually my diaphragm expanding, inhaling and then exhaling. So it does that for me,” said Glenn.

The device also allows doctors to gather patients’ data during sleep.

“We just feel like it’s a real blessing, a real miracle for us, that he has this device,” said Susan. “The fact that he has the opportunity now, to breathe — that it will keep him breathing — is just, I can sleep better and I know he sleeps better.”

“I think it’s going to mean a lot better quality of life, more energy each day and I’m trusting a result, a longer life, maybe than I otherwise would have had,” said Glenn.

Doctors plan to have the results of the study by March 2016. It’s their hope that insurance companies will then make it easy for patients to obtain the devices.

They estimate that 40 percent of heart failure patients have central sleep apnea.

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