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New sleep apnea mask less intrusive

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Patients with sleep apnea are increasingly looking for products that are more comfortable and less intrusive.

Once dominated by large, hard plastic masks that covered a patient's mouth and nose, the industry is meeting consumer demand with lower-profile masks that fit over the nose and are made of softer, lighter materials.

Sleep apnea, a condition that affects millions of Americans, is a disorder in which patients stop breathing momentarily, but often, during sleep. The condition can have serious implications, including increasing risk for heart disease, stroke and obesity.

Bulky, uncomfortable masks lead some patients to stop treatment, which involves pushing air into the patient's throat to keep his airway open during sleep.

Phillips Respironics, a Murrysville medical device maker and the pioneer of sleep apnea products in the 1980s, has introduced a mask that is being touted by the company as a significant advancement.

The Wisp fits over a patient's nose with minimal contact to the face and a strap that goes around the side of the face, rather than over the head, said Scott Frenz, senior director of marketing for Phillips Respironics.

Nasal masks have become the most popular type over the past seven to eight years, Frenz said. But companies like Phillips Respironics are constantly looking for ways to improve them. Full-face masks that cover the mouth and nose now account for only about 25 percent of the market, he said.

“There's no forehead piece like most traditional nasal masks,” he said of the Wisp. “It's designed to not need a forehead piece for stability.”

The strap also comes in two styles: a silicon material that is nearly clear or a soft cloth-like material, he said.

The market for masks and other products related to treating sleep apnea in the United States is predicted to grow to $2.5 billion by 2017, up from $1.5 billion in 2010, according to GlobalData, a United Kingdom-based market research company. Experts have said that up to 80 percent of people with sleep apnea have not been diagnosed.

Respironics Inc., founded in 1976, was acquired by Royal Phillips Electronics in 2008 for $4.9 billion. It has about 1,600 employees in the Pittsburgh region.

It's not the only local company hoping to give patients a better experience with sleep apnea masks.

Circadiance, an Export company founded in 2007 by a former Respironics employee, makes several masks that use a waterproof, breathable synthetic fabric rather than plastic. The result, the company says, is greater comfort.

It also makes a version that uses a strap around the side of the face rather than over the head called SleepWeaver Elan, which it began selling in October.

Company officials could not be reached for comment, but in a press release, Circadiance CEO Dave Groll said, “We designed SleepWeaver Elan to satisfy an even wider range of the growing population of sleep apnea patients.”

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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