Implantable device may help some sleep apnea sufferers

- "I just thought I was getting older," he says. "I was running out of gas."

And Wurzbach snored, every night,  much to his wife Suzie's dismay.

"We had to sleep apart because it was driving her crazy," Wurzbach says.

And it wasn't just that: he had obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that affects about 18 million American adults. 

Dozens of times an hour during sleep, Wurzbach would suddenly stop breathing..

At 73, Tom Wurzbach of Dallas, Georgia, worried he was losing his edge.

He was tired all the time.

WATCH: A new device helps sleep apnea 

He had two surgeries to clear tissue out of his throat, and wore a CPAP breathing mask at night, which uses pressurized air to hold open his airways.

"Couldn't keep it on during the night," Wurzbach says.  "It was uncomfortable, couldn't sleep."

So Wurzbach's physician sent him to Dr. Raj Dedhia, Director of Sleep Surgery at Emory Sleep Center. 

Dedhia determined Wurzbach was a candidate for a newer treatment option, the Inspire Upper Airway Stimulation system.

Dr. Dedhia says think of it as an implantable "pacemaker for the tongue."

"It's not a defibrillator," Dr. Dedhia says.  "People think when they are having an event, it shocks (them). No.  It paces them. So every time they breathe in, the tongue comes out."

Implanting the device required surgery, and being placed under general anesthesia.

Wurzbach was okay with that.

"I had to get some rest, and I knew it," and I knew it.

So Dr. Dedhia implanted a pulse generator under the skin near Wurzbach's right collar bone.,

It's attached to leads that sense when he breathes in during sleep, then deliver a mild stimulation that pushes his tongue forward, helping to clear his airway.

The people with sleep apnea, the problem is the throat becomes too collapsible, and things want to fall back into the airway," Dr. Dedhia explains.  "And, what this is doing is providing gentle stimulation. Or the way I describe it, it restores our natural tongue (we have) when we're awake to keep the tongue out of the airway."

"You don't feel it,"  Wurzbach says.  "You really don't. It's so low-voltage. Now, you know the tongue is moving because you can't talk any more. You sound like you're drunk.

He uses a remote to turn the device on and off.  

Because it's hard to fall asleep, he sets the device on a 45-minute delay, to allow himself a little more time to doze off.

And Tom Wurzbach says the device has changed everything for him.

"Because I had no idea how much I was missing out on, just by not being able to breathe at night,' he says. 

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