Dr. Spencer Payne

Dr. Spencer Payne has a balloon that just might fix your sinus problems.

The new technique in use at the University of Virginia Medical Center to fix sinus problems, in a nutshell, is to stick a balloon up a patient’s nose and use it to bend tiny bones inside the head.

The procedure is considered a less-invasive alternative to traditional surgeries, though the first line of defense remains traditional treatments such as antibiotics and salt-water rinses.

The new gizmo has been catching on in recent years, but still isn’t all that widespread. Only one person at the UVa Medical Center uses it, Dr. Spencer Payne.

When Payne is treating patients who haven’t responded to first-line treatments and who haven’t had sinus surgery before, he sometimes uses the balloon.

Carefully threaded up the nose and into the head’s various sinus cavities, the balloon is inflated until it becomes hard. It then bends the thin sheets of bone that define the cavities, creating microfractures and widening

The results are occasionally, but not always, dramatic, he said. Sinus problems can be caused by a wide variety of maladies, so sometimes the balloon treatments alone are enough to “fix” a patient.

Other times, the treatment merely opens the sinuses enough for other treatments to get inside and do their jobs.

“It’s not something that works for everyone … but for the people that it does work for, it’s a quicker, less-painful option,” he said.

He said most patients only need an over-the-counter painkiller after the treatment, of which he does two or three each month.

Lindsay Doswell, 24, of Charlottesville, has had the procedure. She’d been suffering from chronic headaches and pressure, she said. The ballooning itself was a snap, she said.

“It was a quick, hour-long process,” she said.

The surgery didn’t immediately solve all of her problems, but it meant that continued use of rinses and antibiotics, which had failed in the past, were successful, she said.

She now rarely has problems and, when she does, rinses do the trick, she said.

The balloon treatment is a reapplication of technology already used for other treatments, especially in the heart. Likewise, the old treatment was borrowed from another profession, joint surgeons. In that treatment, a tiny spinning blade is used to cut the bone.

Chronic sinusitis, the technical term for the condition the new technique counters, is gradually rising in America, Payne said. Among the different theories, one of the more popular is the hygiene hypothesis, Payne said.

A University of Michigan Health System news release described the hygiene hypothesis as the reduction of the immune system’s exposure to different diseases, particularly at a young age, because of modern technology and lifestyles, leading to an increase in allergic reactions.

Payne also thinks the treatment is important because it cuts down the amount of time patients must spend in the hospital, though it isn’t yet being widely performed as an outpatient procedure.

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