Laser procedure used to reduce snoring is alternative to more expensive surgery

November 23, 1993|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

The Suttons had tried everything from soft music to earplugs. Nothing could stop Charles Sutton's snoring and give his wife, Carol, a good night's sleep.

Now they are hoping that a new laser procedure will let them both sleep easier.

When the Crownsville couple sought help from Dr. Douglas Finnegan, an Annapolis ear, nose and throat specialist, he suggested the laser procedure as an alternative to painful and expensive surgery. The procedure was developed in Europe a few years ago, but only introduced in the United States in May.

Sitting in the patient's chair in Dr. Finnegan's office last week, Mr. Sutton was nervous, but determined to go ahead with his first treatment.

"I wake up in the mornings with a sore throat and a lot of mornings, I wake up without my wife," Mr. Sutton said.

Only two specialists in the Baltimore area use the laser treatment to stop snoring. Dr. David Eisele, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, has not used the laser, but said the technique appears promising. "The preliminary reports indicate that the procedure is effective, but there is little data," he said.

Dr. Finnegan said he learned about the treatment, called Laser Assisted Uvulopalatoplasty (LAUP), after reading about it in a Vanderbilt University alumni magazine.

"I thought it was quite remarkable," said Dr. Finnegan, who has used the procedure on four patients in the past month.

Dr. Lewis B. Newberg, an Ellicott City specialist who began performing LAUPs a week ago, said he began looking into laser treatments after he himself started to snore.

When her husband first started to snore five or six years ago, Mrs. Sutton said, she only needed to wake him and tell him to turn over on his stomach. But such a simple remedy no longer worked.

They tried elevating his head and listening to soft music. Mrs. Sutton began wearing earplugs, but sometimes even they didn't help. Overnight guests could hear his snores two rooms away. Mr. Sutton suffered, too.

"He's exhausted all of the time," Mrs. Sutton said.

Approximately 25 percent of all adults are habitual snorers. Men snore more frequently than women and the condition worsens with age.

Laser surgery can cure approximately 85 percent of snorers, according to doctors performing the procedure. Even more significantly, the laser can be used to treat sleep apnea, a condition in which a sleeping person momentarily stops breathing.

Over the course of a few treatments, the laser burns away excess

tissue in the palette and uvula, the fleshy nodule in the back of the mouth. Snoring is often caused by air passing over these tissues.

Jim Spence had his first LAUP about a week ago to treat sleep apnea. His wife, Gloria, said she would wake up in the middle of the night and her husband would not be breathing. "All of a sudden, there would not be any noise. I had to shake him."

After undergoing the first treatment, his condition seems to have improved somewhat, although several more treatments will be needed.

Mr. Spence said the procedure is uncomfortable, but not unbearable. At first, a local anesthetic is administered to numb PTC the throat area. Then a 10-minute treatment follows in which portions of tissue are burned away.

When the anesthesia wears off about an hour later, the patient has a sore throat that persists for several days. "Imagine the worst strep throat you ever had," Mr. Spence aid.

But after about a week, the soreness subsides.

As unpleasant as the treatment is, it is still not as uncomfortable or as expensive as conventional treatments. A LAUP costs between $1,500 and $3,000 and may be done under local anesthesia in a doctor's office. Insurance may pay if the procedure is used to treat sleep apnea.

In conventional treatments, surgery is performed in a hospital under general anesthesia. Costs run as high as $5,000.

And with the conventional surgery, only half the patients are cured, Dr. Newberg said.

The other common treatment to alleviate snoring is for a patient to sleep attached to a machine that applies pressure to the nasal passages and throat, opening the airways and allowing a person to breathe more easily.

Needless to say, sleeping with such a device isn't easy.

Dr. Newberg predicts that within a few years, LAUP will be one of the most common types of laser surgery.

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