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Small device helps sleep apnea sufferers in a big way

Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 · Volume: XLII · Issue: 1

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Contact: Will Sansom, (210) 567-2579

Story by Natalie Gutierrez


Paul McLornan, B.D.S., was the lead investigator of the sleep apnea study.
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Paul McLornan, B.D.S., was the lead investigator of the sleep apnea study. clear graphic

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SAN ANTONIO (Jan. 13, 2009) – Imagine choking and gasping for air every time you fall asleep. Between 18 million and 20 million people in the United States suffer from these frightening symptoms because of a common disorder called sleep apnea. Because of a lack of awareness among both health professionals and the public, up to 90 percent of sufferers aren’t diagnosed or treated, and that could prove deadly.

When left untreated, sleep apnea may lead to more serious health problems. According to national health statistics, nearly 38,000 cardiovascular deaths annually are in some way related to sleep apnea.

Dental researchers offer new treatment alternative
Although treatment is available, many don’t comply with standard therapies. Researchers in the Dental School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio are offering another treatment option that is more appealing, more affordable and easier to use than standard therapies.


The Thornton Adjustable Positioner is a device that helps pull the lower jaw forward, creating an open airway in the throat.
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The Thornton Adjustable Positioner is a device that helps pull the lower jaw forward, creating an open airway in the throat. clear graphic

 

Thornton Adjustable Positioner appliance
Paul McLornan, B.D.S., assistant professor in the Department of Prosthodontics, is the lead investigator of an 18-month study involving sleep apnea patients at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, Audie Murphy Division. Researchers used an oral appliance called the Thornton Adjustable Positioner (TAP) to treat those suffering from moderate to severe sleep apnea.

Patients did not use standard treatment
“What we found was that many of our patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea were not adhering to standard treatment with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine,” Dr. McLornan said. Although the CPAP is considered to be the gold standard in treating sleep apnea and is very effective, Dr. McLornan said compliance by patients is well below 50 percent.

“Some patients say the machine (which uses a face mask connected to tubes and blows air down a patient’s throat during sleep to keep the airway open), is cumbersome or noisy,” Dr. McLornan said. “Some said it was uncomfortable or that it bothered their spouses, or that they were just too embarrassed to use the machine.”

Dr. McLornan’s study proved that the TAP device, which is much smaller and fits in a patient’s mouth, is now an option for patients with severe sleep apnea.

New device moves lower jaw forward, opening the airway
Patients were fitted with the TAP appliance and given a tiny key that fits in the front of the device. The patient was instructed to wear the appliance every night and to insert and turn the key several millimeters before bedtime. By turning the key, the patient pulls his lower jaw forward, thus creating an open airway in the throat.

Patients in his study improved significantly when using the TAP. “We saw patients who began the study with severe sleep apnea end the study with very mild or no sleep apnea. They reported sleeping better, feeling more rested in the morning and altogether healthier.”

Dr. McLornan said this research is vital to both the medical and dental communities.

Many health issues associated with sleep apnea
“Sleep apnea is a growing and serious problem for people of all ages and all ethnic groups,” Dr. McLornan said. “If left untreated, it becomes progressively worse. People suffering from sleep apnea are at increased risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, obesity and diabetes. It takes both dentists and medical professionals working together to control this potentially deadly disorder. The TAP gives patients another viable treatment alternative.” It is also less invasive and costly than CPAP or surgery.

Consult doctor with concerns about sleep apnea
Dr. McLornan said patients who think they may suffer from sleep apnea should consult their family physician and undergo a standard sleep study in a lab. Costs are normally covered by medical insurance.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the professional society that sets the standards for and promotes excellence in sleep medicine, now recommends that oral appliances can be the first line of treatment for people with mild to moderate sleep apnea. Dr. McLornan’s study demonstrates it can be used for patients with severe problems as well.

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The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $668 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $16.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $36 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 25,600 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and other health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit www.uthscsa.edu.

 
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