New sleep apnea treatments emerge

Every night without fail, Paul Blumstein straps on a mask that prevents him from repeatedly waking up, gasping for air.

It’s been his routine since he was diagnosed with a condition called sleep apnea.

“It’s like an octopus has clung to my face,”

said Blumstein, 70, of Annandale, Virginia. “I just want to sleep once in a while without that feeling.”

It’s been two decades since doctors fully recognized that breathing that stops and starts during sleep is tied to a host of health issues, even early death, but there still isn’t a treatment that most people find easy to use.

Now, new ways of conquering sleep apnea, and the explosive snoring that comes with it, are vying for a place in the bedrooms of millions of people craving a good night’s sleep. Products range from a $350 restraint meant to discourage back sleeping to a $24,000 surgical implant that pushes the tongue forward with each breath.

So far, no pills for sleep apnea exist, but researchers are working on it. One drug containing THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, showed promise in a study this year.

The pill, known as dronabinol, already is used to ease chemotherapy side effects. A small experiment in 73 people suggests it helps some but wasn’t completely effective. It may work better in combination with CPAP or other devices, said researcher David Carley of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Sleep medicine is a relatively new field. The most rigorous studies are small or don’t follow patients for longer than six months, said Dr. Alex Krist of Virginia Commonwealth University, who served on a federal guidelines panel that reviewed sleep apnea treatments before recommending against screening adults who have no symptoms.

As the search for better treatments continues, listening to patients will be key, said Dr. Susan Redline of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“We are actually just treating a very tiny percentage of people effectively,” she said.