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A Harder Palate

Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page HE02

A primary cause of chronic snoring and sleep apnea is a weak soft palate that flutters shut and blocks air passageways. Many people with apnea sleep by breathing through a mask connected to an air hose; others opt for UPPP (uvulopalatopharyngoplasty), a surgical procedure that removes obstructive tissue.

Restore Medical of St. Paul, Minn., offers a new method: Palate implants. The firm's "Pillar Procedure," completed during a 15-minute office visit using local anesthesia, was approved earlier this year by the Food and Drug Administration to treat apnea.

A physician uses a needle to implant three vertical inserts side by side in the patient's palate. "It takes less than a minute sliding it in and out," said Regina P. Walker, a Chicago specialist who is Restore Medical's principal investigator for sleep apnea studies.

The inserts are 18 millimeters (less than an inch) long and made of Dacron or polyester -- "firm but not hard, like a thick string," she said. Within a month tissue has grown around the implants, making the palate sufficiently rigid to stay open during sleep.

Paul Younan, a 33-year-old Chicago-area software engineer, was never comfortable with his mask-and-hose device and was repulsed by surgical options. "They wanted to carve me out like a pumpkin," he said. Each night his tape recorder captured his snoring and choking; a month and a half after the Pillar Procedure, "the only sound on the tape was my alarm clock."

Apnea professionals are circumspect. "It's exciting to have a new alternative available," said Edward Grandi, executive director of the Sleep Apnea Association in the District. "But in fact, it's not for everybody. It's limited to some extent for people with mild to moderate apnea. It holds a lot of promise. Beyond that we're waiting and watching to see how things turn out."

The procedure costs $1,500 to $3,000; insurers may cover apnea treatments with pre-authorization. The Web site www.restoremedical.com lists practitioners who offer the procedure.

-- Buzz McClain

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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