Jaw surgery aids sleep apnea sufferers

LOS ANGELES (KABC) Eileen Lightcap used to feel like she was in a fog all day long.

"I just didn't have the desire to do anything," said Eileen. "Too tired to do it."

Doctors diagnosed Eileen with obstructive sleep apnea. It's caused by the throat closing during sleep, cutting off the airway and waking up the body. It's more than an annoyance -- if untreated, it can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.

"We know that people with sleep apnea have a higher mortality rate than people who do not have sleep apnea," said sleep expert Dr. Karl Doghramji.

"When you think, you could go to bed and not wake up the next day," said Eileen. "I just don't think I was ready for that."

That's one reason she chose to undergo a new surgical technique called a Genial Bone Advancement Trephine (GBAT).

"The tongue is attached to the very front portion of the jaw here. So if we can actually just move a very small portion of the jaw forward, we can pull the tongue forward and open the space behind the tongue," said ear, nose & throat specialist Dr. Maurits Boon.

During GBAT, doctors go in through an incision inside the lip. They move a portion of bone about the size of a penny, then add a small permanent plate to the keep the tongue from blocking the airway.

Doctors say there is no change to a patient's physical appearance, and the surgery is quick. Some patients may feel numbness in the jaw and lips for several months.

For Eileen, it was a small price to pay.

"I still get tired, but I don't wake up," said Eileen.

Who's the best candidate for the GBAT surgery? Doctors say patients who have a smaller jaw and are not morbidly obese can expect the best results.

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is non-surgical. It involves a mask that pumps a continual flow of air. But many people find it makes them feel claustrophobic and can't use it.

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