When it came to dealing with her chronic sinus problems, Ashley Mulcahy feared the potential cure more than the misery she'd endured since her teens.
The 27-year-old Wichitan had listened to so many horror stories about surgery to open blocked sinuses that she couldn't bring herself to schedule the operation.
"I'd heard from so many people that it's just very painful, with a long recovery time," she said.
But a procedure for relieving sinusitis that's relatively new to the Wichita area has Mulcahy breathing a lot easier, and without the pain and loss of productive time often associated with sinus surgery. Called balloon sinuplasty, it made a believer out of Mulcahy.
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"I'm feeling better every day," she said. "I can definitely tell a difference in my breathing."
Sinusitis is an inflammation or infection of the passages that drain each of the sinuses around the nose and eyes. Nationwide, an estimated 37 million people suffer from it, with about a fourth of those unable to get relief from antibiotics or nasal sprays.
In sinus surgery, doctors cut out inflamed tissue and bone. Recovery time of a week or more is standard to let the swelling go down and bleeding stop.
Balloon sinuplasty works on the same principle as angioplasty. The doctor inserts a balloon catheter in a patient's nose to reach the sinus passage, then gradually inflates it to stretch the passage. Patients are often able to return to work and other normal activities the next day.
That Mulcahy refused sinus surgery is somewhat remarkable considering her experience with sinusitis. Mulcahy, who grew up in Blue Springs, Mo., started suffering from allergies in middle school. Seemingly every year her infections became more frequent.
Asked to catalog her symptoms, she said, "Gum and teeth pain. My teeth would hurt all the time to where I wouldn't want to chew. Headaches. A lot of pressure in my nose. Sore throat sometimes for days to where I would think I had strep throat. Severe drainage down the back to my throat."
"I lost five or 10 pounds from just nausea last spring," she said. "I couldn't even eat."
Most frustrating of all was the toll that near-constant fatigue took on her life. Mulcahy graduated from the University of Kansas law school last year and moved here with her husband, Stephen, ready to get to know their new home. Instead, she found herself reserving what energy she had for work.
"When I'm feeling good, I'm the type of person who is active and always has something planned," she said. "But I've been so sick I haven't been doing anything on the evenings or weekends. There are so many things to do when you're new to Wichita, and I couldn't do them."
She isn't alone in rejecting sinus surgery. According to Brian Johnson, who works for Acclarent, maker of the balloon used in sinuplasty, an estimated 900,000 people in the United States, and some 2,000 in Wichita, refuse that form of surgery each year. About 800 sinus surgeries are performed in Wichita annually, Johnson said.
About 75 people in Wichita have had balloon sinuplasty since it started being performed here last year, Johnson said, while nationwide the figure is 135,000 since its introduction in 2005. Three doctors are offering the procedure locally — David Colgrove of Via Christi Medical Associates, Phillip Harris of Wichita Clinic, and Barry Kimberley of Newton Medical Center.
"The reason the surgery is so effective is that it doesn't tear the membranes inside the nose, so the healing is quicker," said Colgrove, who performed Mulcahy's balloon sinuplasty at Via Christi Hospital on St. Teresa.
For the same reason, the balloon procedure seems to offer a better chance at preventing sinus problems from coming back, he said. So far, the surgery appears to have an initial success rate of 90 to 95 percent, with 85 to 90 percent of the patient's sinuses staying open for four to five years.
"This is just an advance of technique that I think is really worthwhile," Colgrove said.
Kimberley described himself as a "reluctant adopter" of balloon sinuplasty who's now "astounded by the quick recovery time" of patients who've had it.
One of the best things about balloon sinuplasty is that it can be performed on children. Traditional sinus surgery is not usually an option with children because of the risk involved and their lower pain threshold, he said.
"I saw it as an opportunity to treat kids with the snotty nose syndrome," Kimberley said.
Balloon sinuplasty is so noninvasive that he predicts he will be performing it in his office before long.
About the only type of sinus problem that balloon sinuplasty would not treat, he said, is polyps, or growths.
Kimberley predicted it will replace much sinus surgery, especially since Acclarent was acquired by the giant Johnson & Johnson about a year ago. It's covered by most insurance plans, he noted.
Mulcahy's recovery took a little longer than most cases because she had a second procedure, to straighten a deviated septum, at the same time. But two weeks later, she's getting used to feeling good all the time.
"I'm definitely a lot better," she said Friday. "I don't have the fatigue I did before. I have the energy to do things. I'm going to visit friends this weekend."
To watch a video showing the sinuplasty procedure, go to www.balloonsinuplasty.com, click on What Is Balloon Sinuplasty and then on Watch the Balloon Sinuplasty video.