Sleep apnea is a fairly common disorder characterized by one or more pauses in breathing, or shallow breaths, while a sufferer is asleep. The breathing pauses can last anywhere from a few seconds up to minutes at a time, and they may occur thirty or more times an hour.
In a typical case, normal breathing then begins again on its own, but there's no test to accurately diagnose the condition. The vast majority of people who suffer from sleep apnea don't know they have the condition, and the most common type of sleep apnea is called 'obstructive sleep apnea,' a condition wherein the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. Central sleep apnea – a less common type of sleep apnea – occurs if the area of your brain which controls your breathing fails to send the correct signals to your breathing muscles.
And the condition is no joke. It comes with increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity and heart arrhythmia.
Using a 3D scanner to map the interior surfaces of a patient's mouth, researchers at CSIRO, the Australian national science agency, and from the Australian dental company, Oventus, are now printing a mouthpiece used to prevent dangerous pauses in breath during sleep.
The 'duckbill' device is 3D printed in titanium and then coated with medical grade plastic. Each mouthpiece is thereby customized to each individual patient. The device extends outside the mouth and is divided into a pair of separated airways to allows air to flow through to the back of the throat unobstructed by deviation problems in the nose, the back of the mouth or the tongue.
"When Oventus came to CSIRO with this idea, we were really excited," said CSIRO's 3D printing expert, John Barnes. "The possibilities of 3D printing are endless and the fact that we can now design and print a completely customized mouthpiece for patients is revolutionary."
Sufferers of the condition are sure to be pleased as well.
"It's an exciting prospect for people suffering from the debilitating disorder," said Oventus CEO, Neil Anderson. "The design offers significant benefits which cannot be achieved with more traditional manufacturing techniques. This new device is tailored to an individual's mouth using a 3D scan and is used only on the top teeth which make it more compact – and far more comfortable.
Anderson says the device will be available to patients in 2015.