Electrical stimulation (ES) of the upper airway (UAW) dilator muscles for patients with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) has been used for several decades, but in recent years research in this field has experienced a renaissance; the results of several studies have triggered a steady rise in the interest in this topic. Prospective trials, although still lacking a sham-controlled and randomised approach, have revealed the potential of ES. Hypoglossal nerve stimulation (HNS) leads to a significant reduction in the apnoea-hypopnoea index and the oxygen desaturation index (ODI). There are similar results published from feasibility studies for transcutaneous ES. A limitation of HNS remains the invasive procedure, the costs involved and severe adverse events, while for the non-invasive approach complications are rare and limited. The limiting step for transcutaneous ES is to deliver a sufficient current without causing arousal from sleep. Despite the progress up to date, numerous variables including optimal stimulation settings, different devices and procedures remain to be further defined for the invasive and the non-invasive method. Further studies are required to identify which patients respond to this treatment. ES of the UAW dilator muscles in OSA has the potential to develop into a clinical alternative to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. It could benefit selected patients who fail standard therapy due to poor long-term compliance. It is likely that international societies will need to review and update their existing guidance on the use of ES in OSA.
Keywords: Transcutaneous genioglossal stimulation; hypoglossal nerve stimulation (HNS); implantable device; oxygen desaturation; sleep-disordered breathing; upper airway (UAW).