Surgical robot is the latest tool for sleep apnea

February 17, 2012 10:24:05 AM PST
Local doctors are testing a new procedure for sleep apnea. It is more than just a bad night's sleep. It can also lead to a host of medical problems, and ups your chances of having a car accident.

This is a surgical procedure that started as a way to remove cancerous tumors in the head and neck. Now doctors say it also works to treat severe sleep apnea.

Rich and Bettyann Davis of Hammonton, New Jersey, have been married 17 years.

For the last 7 of those years, Bettyann says Rich's snoring has become unbearable.

Bettyann says," You could go to another room and close the door and you could still hear the snoring."

At first, she says it was an annoyance. But then she was worried for her husband's health. And for good reason. A sleep study showed he had severe sleep apnea. It's a potentially dangerous sleep disorder- a person's breathing and oxygen is interrupted throughout the night.

Rich was first given a CPAP machine. It's the gold standard treatment for the disorder.But many people, including Ric, can't get used to it.

"You would sleep it would go up on your eyeball," he says.

That's what lead him to the operating room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Surgeons here are removing an area at the base of the tongue that in some people causes an obstruction.

Dr. Erica Thaler says traditional surgery for sleep apnea removes the tonsils, uvula and part of the soft palate. Until now getting to this additional deep area wasn't possible.

It is now with the daVinci robot.

"It's basically opened up a whole new area of surgery that wasn't doable before," Dr. Thaler says.

She says the robot's 3D imaging and precise cutting tools prevent damage to surrounding areas which could swell the airway. The transoral robotic surgery is still in clinical trials to treat sleep apnea but so far it's proving to be successful. It has a 65% success rate.

Rich says the first week after surgery was rough.

"It felt like a very bad sore throat, really bad," he recalls.

But a month later, there's no pain and no snoring.

"It's quieter now, it's beautiful," Bettyann says with a big smile.

Plus, Rich is now getting healthier sleep.

"I'm getting almost 7 or 8 hours of sleep. I am not falling asleep on the way home cuz before I would be nodding while I was driving home, but now I am wide awake," Rich says.

And because of that, everyone is safer. The hospital is continuing its clinical trial.

Candidates for the TransOral Robotic Surgery have to have a sleep study showing he or she has severe sleep apnea. Doctors will also assess the airway to determine whether the base of the tongue is contributing to the obstruction and if there is tissue that can safely be removed.

The primary risks include bleeding, and other complications associated with surgery.

For more information, see the Penn Medicine TransOral Robotic Sugery website.