Could Electrical Currents Replace the CPAP?

The CPAP has been the most frequent form of treatment for obstructive sleep apnea for many years. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the CPAP doesn’t work for many people. But researchers may have discovered an alternative involving electrical stimulation.

Transcutaneous electrical neurostimulators (or TENS machines) are devices that deliver low levels of electrical currents directly on the skin through adhesive patches. These electrical currents serve in place of neurological stimulation to keep muscles firing. While TENS machines have been used for years to treat pain and muscle spasms, researchers have begun to test the effectiveness of TENS machines to treat obstructive sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is generally caused by obstructions in the airway due to the soft palate and other portions of the throat to obstruct air flow. Research believed that using electrical stimulation on the throat to target specific muscles might help keep the airway open during sleep. They found that patients who used TENS machines while sleeping experienced a significant reduction in their AHI (apnea-hypopnea index) decreased, which means they had fewer pauses in their breathing during sleep. The study also showed that patients who used the TENS machine had improvements in their sleepiness levels, meaning that they felt more awake and alert during the day.

This could be good news for patients who have trouble using the CPAP. The TENS unit only involves using adhesive patches applied in strategic locations on the neck, with no need for a mask. The TENS also doesn’t require a separate machine for cleaning like the CPAP.

It does have some drawbacks. The TENS machine did cause skin irritation and headaches with some patients, and like the CPAP, it also requires access to electricity, so it does carry some of the same limitations.

But overall, this new approach to treating OSA could end up being a promising development in the field of sleep medicine. It offers hope for those who struggle with traditional treatments and provides a potential option for managing OSA symptoms.

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While the CPAP is a popular treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, it has plenty of drawbacks. Unfortunately, a lot of people suffering from sleep apnea learned the hard way that the CPAP can backfire rather badly.

Philips Respironics, a leading manufacturer of CPAP machines, settled a class action lawsuit over flaws in their machines’ designs. Engineers had installed foam in the machines to help them run quieter and reduce vibration. Which was fine, until that foam started flaking off and – along with toxic gases – was blown into the users’ mouths and lungs. The results, as you can probably imagine, were terrible for a number of CPAP users: the flaking foam has been linked to a number of health issues, including respiratory illnesses, lung cancer and even death. (The FDA has had reports of 385 deaths linked to the machines since April 2021.)

This isn’t a recent issue, either. In June 2021, the FDA issued a recall on Philips machines manufactured since 2009 over concerns that the deteriorating foam could pose a threat to users’ health. This put people suffering from obstructive sleep apnea in a terrible dilemma, as many of them didn’t see any real alternative to a CPAP to get a good night’s sleep.

This is just one reason among many that Dr. Krish doesn’t prescribe the CPAP for her sleep apnea patients. If you’re suffering from sleep apnea and in need of an alternative to the CPAP to get back having a good night’s sleep, contact us today for an at-home sleep study.

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