Upper airway occlusion in obstructive sleep apnea has been attributed to a decline in pharyngeal neuromuscular activity occurring in a structurally narrowed airway. Surgical treatment focuses on the correction of anatomic abnormalities, but there is a potential role for activation of the upper airway musculature, especially with stimulation of the hypoglossal nerve and genioglossus muscle. We present evidence from research on upper airway neuromuscular electrical stimulation in animals and humans. We also present results from eight obstructive sleep apnea patients with a fully implanted system for hypoglossal nerve stimulation, demonstrating an improvement in upper airway collapsibility and obstructive sleep apnea severity. Future research, including optimization of device features and stimulation parameters as well as patient selection, is necessary to make hypoglossal nerve stimulation a viable alternative to positive airway pressure therapy and upper airway surgical procedures.
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