Sleep Strategies

Implementing a hypoglossal nerve stimulation program in your sleep practice


It is estimated that almost one billion people globally are affected by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) (Benjafield A, et al. Lancet Respir Med. 2019;7[8]:687-98). Despite such high prevalence, the treatment options for OSA are somewhat limited. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), the gold standard therapy, is not viable for many due to difficulties tolerating the device or mask, and thus may not be a realistic long-term solution. As per certain estimates, nearly 50% of CPAP users discontinue treatment by the fifth year (Schoch O, et al. Respiration. 2014;87[2]:121-8). Furthermore, alternative options such as mandibular advancement devices, positional therapy, weight loss, and maxillofacial or palate surgery, also have unique challenges and limitations.


Dr. Kirat Gill

First described in 2001, hypoglossal nerve stimulation (HGNS) is a relatively new and emerging technology for the treatment of OSA (Schwartz A, et al. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2001 Oct;127[10]:1216-23). HGNS therapy was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 for the treatment of moderate to severe OSA. The therapy involves surgical implantation of the HGNS device, optimization of device settings, and evaluation for treatment response. A physician-led multidisciplinary Hypoglossal Nerve Stimulation Clinic involves collaboration from essential stakeholders, most importantly sleep medicine providers, clinic staff, sleep technologists, and ENT sleep surgeons. Goals of the multidisciplinary program are to ensure timely follow-up, optimization of device settings, and maximizing treatment efficacy. This review describes steps involved in developing a successful multidisciplinary HGNS program within a sleep medicine practice.

Patient selection and evaluation

There is growing interest in HGNS relative to conventional CPAP therapy, with many patients presenting to clinic to inquire about this therapy. However, not all patients are candidates for HGNS therapy. Prioritizing appropriate patient selection and education are key first steps. The initial assessments usually occur with a sleep medicine specialist. It begins with confirmation of the diagnosis of OSA in all patients and a concerted effort to troubleshoot and address any barriers to CPAP use before consideration of surgery. Patients who are unwilling to use or unable to tolerate CPAP therapy undergo further evaluation for HGNS therapy. It is important to ensure that patients are also screened for other sleep disorders, such as insomnia or restless leg syndrome, to rule out its contribution to daytime (or nighttime) symptoms.

Other salient inclusion criteria include an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) between 15-100 events per hour (previously 65), at least 18 years of age, and a body mass index (BMI) less than 40 kg/m2 (previously 32). Qualifying patients undergo an updated polysomnography if a recent study is not available. If the polysomnography reveals central and mixed apneas comprising less than 25 percent of the total AHI, patients are referred to ENT Sleep Surgery, and drug-induced sleep endoscopy is offered to examine upper airway anatomy. When a complete concentric collapse of the soft palate is seen on drug-induced sleep endoscopy, surgery is contraindicated. Prior palate surgery or maxillomandibular advancement (MMA) are not contraindications to HGNS therapy.

The patients receive comprehensive information on the nature of the surgery, expected recovery course, and device activation timeline. Perhaps most importantly, the patients receive structured education on HGNS therapy and potential outcomes to set realistic expectations. In the STAR trial, patients experienced a reduction in the AHI of approximately 70% (Strollo P, et al. N Engl J Med. 2014;370[2]:139-49). It is important to note that a response to therapy was defined as a reduction in the AHI by at least 50% and a value less than 20 events/hour (Strollo P, et al. Sleep. 2015;38[10]:1593-8). Therefore, patients who are expecting complete resolution of snoring and/or OSA may not be ideal candidates for surgery. Furthermore, patients who continue to experience fatigue and sleepiness on CPAP despite control of OSA may not experience amelioration of these symptoms with HGNS therapy.


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