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A new surgical treatment used to treat sleep apnoea has cured 70 per cent of patients involved in a Flinders Medical Centre study. It is the first time the technique, developed in China, has been properly evaluated.

FMC head of ear, nose and throat surgery, Professor Simon Carney, said the procedure was twice as effective as previous types of surgery.

“Our study of 48 sleep apnoea patients has shown that the technique has significant benefits, with the symptoms of every patient in the study improving,” Prof Carney said.

“The number of pauses in between the breathing of people involved in the study was reduced by 76 per cent and daytime sleepiness reduced by half.”

The hospital was the first in Australia to use the technique after the late Dr Sam Robinson brought it to Australia. The study also involved patients from the Illawarra ENT Head and Neck Clinic in New South Wales. The new technique, which requires only one night in hospital, involves repositioning tissue in the throat with a treatment that creates channels in the tongue.

The older technique was more painful and included the removal of a wedge in the tongue, before sewing it back together. “Often the patient wouldn’t be able to be guaranteed to talk or swallow completely normally afterwards and not surprisingly a lot of patients declined to have the surgery,” Prof Carney said.

“The results weren’t very good for a lot of these patients … only about 30 per cent of these patients got better.”

Prof Carney said the new technique took about 45 minutes and was much more successful.

“The technique is incredibly safe, easily taught and has long term benefits for the management of sleep apnoea within the health system.”

He said about five patients were now undergoing the procedure each month at Flinders and it was becoming available at other SA hospitals. But, he warned the technique was not a replacement for continuous positive airway pressure – a mask worn while sleeping – but an alternative for those where CPAP does not work, or was too intrusive.

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Following the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s operation to correct a deviated septum, there has been much speculation that he has merely undergone this operation to improve the sound of his voice.

The political editor of The Guardian, Patrick Wintour, was particualrly dismissive of the medical need for Mr Miliband’s medical procedure, and also seems to grossly underestimate the seriousness of sleep apnoea:

“Ed Miliband had been asleep for an hour, recovering from an operation his team ludicrously continued to insist was solely about tackling a deviated septum in his nose, so making it easier for him to sleep, and possibly for his wife Justine to be spared the odd snore.”

I can only assume that Mr Wintour and his partner have never suffered from sleep apnoea, which as any sufferer will tell you is a serious and chronic condition that can ruin your quality of life, and that of your partner. There is also a growing body of evidence that sleep apnoea contributes to heart disease, and also road traffic accidents.

While this kind of surgery is only undertaken in a minority of cases (CPAP treatment is effective in 90% of cases), it can be an effective treatment for sleep apnoea, and I can only assume that this was the diagnosis Mr Miliband received as his operation was done on the NHS.

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While it’s surely beneficial that the leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband being diagnosed with sleep apnoea will increase awareness of the condition in the UK, I hope that people don’t get the impression that surgery is the best, or most common, solution. CPAP is the safest and  most tried and tested solution to sleep apnoea and is recommended by NICE.

Surgery is not usually a first  option for helping Obstructive Sleep Apnoea sufferers and in my practice only about 11%  of all patients have surgery. However in some cases, especially children, the cause for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea might be enlarged tonsils or adenoids. Removing them, therefore, removes the problem. Mr Miliband does not seem to be in this category though as the Daily Telegraph reported last week:

“It had long been assumed that he merely had enlarged adenoids – fleshy parts behind the nose that can affect the voice… However on Friday a spokesman denied reports that he was having an adenoidectomy, and instead disclosed that Mr Miliband is suffering from sleep apnoea, a potentially serious condition that affects the breathing while asleep, which is made worse by a problem with the partition in his nose, known as a deviated septum. He will undergo a surgical procedure, most likely one known as a septoplasty, to reshape the cartilage and bone in his nose. This should make his breathing easier and may also make his voice clearer.”

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