New surgery helps SpongeBob creator, others with sleep apnea

Half of all middle aged men suffer from sleep apnea, but only 20% know they have it. If left untreated, it can be deadly.

But now a new surgery could help sufferers get the sleep they need.

What do SpongeBob SquarePants and sleep apnea have in common?

Ironically, one of the cartoon's creators-is one of 12 million American suffering from sleep apnea.

Albie Hecht ran nickelodeon for a decade. During his last year he felt like he was stuck in a nightmare.

"I was walking up 57 times an hour," said Hecht

"Sleep apnea has shown to increase the occurrence of serious medical problems," said Jeffrey M. Ahn, Md., director of sleep disorder & robotic surgery, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Columbia.

While recommended for all, only half of the people diagnosed will sleep with one of these, a bulky CPAP machine. Most will go untreated. The other option is surgery.

"The problem is, there was really no good way to address the area without making a large incision in the neck," said Jeffrey Ahn, Md.

Doctors at New York Presbyterian-Columbia now use a robotic surgery to get to the problem.

"At the back part of the tongue, there's some lymphoid tissue, and all this excess tissue is obstructing the airway," said Ahn.

Ahn can now go in through a patient's mouth-without an incision. He shaves away the excess lymphoid tissues, opening up the airway. Patients are on a soft diet and might suffer from a severe sore throat for up to two weeks. But for Hecht, it was worth it.

"I sleep very well now, that's the miracle of it all," said Hecht.

Those who are overweight can be more prone to sleep apnea. Because of the post-operation diet, people who get the robotic surgery benefit from a good side effect: they usually lose about twenty lbs.

BACKGROUND: Over 10 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing or instances of abnormally low breathing, during sleep. Each pause in breathing, called an apnea, can last from a few seconds to a few minutes, and may occur 5 to 30 times or more an hour. When this happens it means that the brain and the rest of the body may not get enough oxygen. Sleep apnea is diagnosed with an overnight sleep test called a polysomnogram, or "sleep study". If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, heart attacks, diabetes, and depression. (Source:

FORMS: There are two forms of sleep apnea:
Central (CSA): Breathing is interrupted by a lack of respiratory effort.
Obstructive (OSA): Breathing is interrupted by a physical block to airflow despite respiratory effort.
TREATMENT: A breathing device referred to as CPAP, continuous positive airway pressure, is the most common treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea in adults. A CPAP machine uses a mask that fits over your nose and mouth. The machine gently blows air into your throat. The air presses on the wall of your airway. The air pressure is adjusted so that it's just enough to stop the airway from becoming narrowed or blocked during sleep. The treatment may cause certain side effects and vary from person to person. People who have severe sleep apnea symptoms generally feel much better once they begin treatment with CPAP. (Source:

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Because only half of patients that opt to try a CPAP machine can tolerate it for the long haul, a new surgery is groundbreaking. Transoral robotic surgery (TORS) is a minimally invasive method that allows the surgeon to operate through the patient's mouth, without any external incisions. Employing the da Vinci(r) surgical system, Dr. Jeffrey Ahn uses small robotic arms and a three-dimensional magnified high resolution camera to perform the surgery, whose results are more accurate as well as more patient-friendly. (Source:
Dr. Ahn was among the first surgeons in the world to perform da Vinci transoral robotic surgeries for obstructive sleep apnea. The new robotic procedure is tailor-made for patients with an obstruction in their tongue base. The entire procedure is performed through the patient's mouth. There's no need for tracheotomy, no scarring, and the patient can go home the next day. (Source:

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Jeffrey M. Ahn, M.D.,
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital /Columbia

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