Sleep apnea is a deadly sleep disorder and it is also greatly underdiagnosed. Up to 7 percent of men and 5 percent of women in the United States have sleep apnea, according to a Mayo Clinic study.

Robotic surgery technology has been used extensively for other surgical procedures but the FDA has approved its application for the throat and pulmonary related issues only last year. A handful of academic institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Alabama, have begun exploring the technology’s uses to treat sleep apnea.

Somerset Medical Center’s two surgeons, Adrianna Hekiert and Amy Lazar, spearheaded the robotic sleep apnea surgery treatment in New Jersey for the patients with the most serious cases of sleep apnea.

Doctors said that they have been operating on sleep apnea for years but with the traditional surgery systems the success rate could never exceed 40% in all.

The surgeons observed that the overall success rate has been increased up to 80% in past one year and this has happened only because of the robotic sleep apnea surgery technology. The robot gives them more precision in a tight space.

Since the da Vinci robot, which is made by the California company Intuitive Surgical, was approved for head and neck surgery in 2009, there’s been an onrush of interest in the possible use of the machine, including for cancer cases, according to medical experts. But Lazar and Hekiert were the first in New Jersey – and among the pioneers in the nation – for the radical treatment of sleep apnea.

One of the advantages of this robotic sleep apnea surgery method is to enabling doctors to target the exact problem in the airway.

At the Somerset Medical Center, surgeons could easily watch what was happening inside the airway of a sleep apnea patient. An endoscopic camera was threaded down the throat. The doctors watched the airway collapse on itself, then vibrate with a snore every few moments, like a recurring whoopee cushion.

This technology facilitated the surgeons to spot and ascertain exactly where to point their scalpel, clear out obstructive tissue, and get him breathing normally again.

“We’ve never seen some of this before,” said Lazar. “Nobody’s ever watched anybody sleep like this before, from the inside-out – and then know specifically what to do to correct it.”

“This is so much better, that we can see exactly what we’re doing, and know that we’re clearing out an area which the patient can breathe through,” Hekiert said. “Before it was basically just guesswork.”

Scott Shaffer, an otolaryngologist from Gibbsboro, said he’s performed more than a dozen sleep apnea cases robotically at Kennedy Medical Center in Washington Township, and agrees with his colleagues that it doubles the success of the operation. “Before, I couldn’t get my hands or instruments back there around the tongue,” Shaffer said.

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