Sleep apnea is a common breathing problem plaguing an estimated 22 million Americans. Some of those cases are so severe, patients have to sleep with a bulky device to help them breathe normally during the night. Engineers at the University of Texas at San Antonio are trying to come up with a more user-friendly device.
Joseph Barrios knows firsthand how sleep apnea can affect your life."It’s a terrible feeling," Barrios said. "You’re literally suffocating and you wake up just (breathing hard). I was constantly waking up due to snoring, breathlessness at night. And that’s what led to the CPAP prescription."
CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. It’s a machine powered by a table top compressor that pumps air through a hose into a mask you wear over your face at night. The air keeps your throat open.
"I actually stopped using it because it was more of a nuisance than it worked," Barrios said. "I just took it off."
Many CPAP users simply don’t use their machines. That puts them at risk for health threats like a stroke. Plus people don’t like to take them camping or when they visit relatives.
"The conventional machines are considered to be unwieldy," explained UTSA physics professor Arturo Ayon, Ph.D. His team is trying to come up with a miniaturized version of the CPAP that will be lighter, less cumbersome and more portable.
In the microelectro mechanical systems lab (MEMS Research Laboratory), Ayon and a team of four mechanical engineers have come up with a version of the CPAP that only weighs 8 ounces and is self-contained, no separate compressor, no hose coming out of the mask. A patent is pending. The team has applied for a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue honing the new device.
A 3D printer churns out the mask itself. The next generation will be a smart CPAP, meaning it will not only be programmable, it will store and possibly transmit data to the referring physician.
Ayon says no engineering team has tried this before. "Once this is approved, it’s probably going to be the only intelligent CPAP mask in the market," he commented.
Strapping on the CPAP mask and wearing it while he slept hooked up to a hose was too much for Barrios. As one of the engineers on this project, he has high hopes for success. "
I would be delighted and ecstatic to see this project take off. If it makes it, then great. I guarantee you a lot of people will want to use this," Barrios added.
Data from the first two CPAP mask prototypes showed they were significantly quieter than what’s on the market right now. That would be a welcome development for the people who have to sleep next to sleep apnea patients using these machines.