By Dr. Maria Simbra, Health Editor

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — As sleep apnea is better understood, new therapies are being developed.

“Your tone in your upper airway decreases, the muscles relax, they vibrate and they snore. If they relax too much, you obstruct your airway,” explains Dr. Patrick Reilly, a sleep specialist at St. Clair Hospital.

It’s becoming more common as Americans become more obese. Weight loss helps, but is the hardest to achieve.

There are surgical procedures that help 40 percent.

People can try masks at night to force air in to keep the airway open which help 90 percent, but can take months to get used to.

“You can have leaks around the mask, that blow air on your eyes,” says Dr. Reilly.

Researchers are working on an alternative, a device to zap the nerves to the tongue with an electrical shock.

“It essentially stimulates the nerve to help protrude the tongue, to keep it out of the back of the throat,” he continues.

It would be inserted like a pacemaker into the upper chest, with electrodes threaded up to the nerves to the tongue. And while it’s not available yet, because it is still experimental, it would have to be the last resort for patients because it would be a surgical procedure, Dr. Reilly said.

There are several non-surgical options that work well.

There have been small preliminary studies to support the concept. Things that still need to be worked out include how strong of a shock to deliver and who the best candidates for this would be. Not a simple matter, Dr. Reilly says, because sleep apnea is a very complex disorder.

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