Clearing sinuses with a balloon

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For as long as Sarah Compton can remember, she’s fought a losing battle with her sinuses. Her chronic infections, numerous rounds of antibiotics and struggling to breathe through one nostril were an unfortunate part of life for the 30-year-old schoolteacher from Tinley Park.

“I’ve always been kind of miserable because of it,” she explained.

But even though her clogged sinuses made her feel foggy much of the time, Compton was crystal clear about one thing: Sinus surgery was absolutely out of the question.

“I was definitely anti-surgery,” she elaborated. “I had heard horror stories from other people who had sinus surgery. I hated the thought of having packing in my nose. I knew it wasn’t for me.”

Last summer her sinus symptoms worsened. Dizziness and ear pain made her feel more uncomfortable than ever.

“I just wasn’t feeling right,” she remembered. “I felt dizzy and unstable. I’m an active person, but I spent most of last summer in the house.”

Compton’s doctor referred her to Sherry Fishkin, M.D., board-certified otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) on staff at Ingalls Memorial Hospital.

A breakthrough technique

A CAT scan and MRI revealed a fluid build-up and a cyst in her sinuses.

Compton met with Dr. Fishkin and reiterated her concerns: no sinus surgery.

Initially, Dr. Fishkin treated Compton with antibiotics and steroids to clear up the infection and reduce the painful swelling in her sinuses. They offered some relief at first, but it was short lived.

Compton knew she was running out of options. Then Dr. Fishkin suggested a breakthrough, minimally invasive technique called balloon sinuplasty. The procedure uses a small catheter and balloon to quickly and effectively open and expand blocked sinuses – much like balloon angioplasty does for blocked arteries of the heart. There is no cutting involved. And, more importantly for Compton, no packing of the nose.

“In the past, chronic sinus patients had two treatment options: medications such as antibiotics and topical nasal steroids, or conventional sinus surgery,” Dr. Fishkin said.

While medication works for about 75 to 80 percent of chronic sinusitis sufferers, it does little for the rest. Surgery is the best option for these individuals. But because it involves the painful removal of bone and tissue, many patients refuse it.

“Medications were having very little impact on Miss Compton’s sinuses, which were very blocked,” Dr. Fishkin added. “Balloon sinuplasty was the best option.”

How it works

In most cases, sinuplasty can be done without removing tissue or bone. It works by widening or expanding the bones that comprise the sinus openings. Moving the bones aside remodels the sinus cavity, creating larger openings.

That means less discomfort, a faster recovery and more permanent relief. In fact, many patients experience dramatic improvement immediately and are able to return to normal activities within a day or two. Sinuplasty is performed as an outpatient procedure under general anesthesia.

During balloon sinuplasty, an otolaryngologist inserts a flexible catheter into the patient’s nostril. Using an endoscopic image on a nearby video monitor, along with a CT scan of the patient’s sinuses, the doctor carefully guides the tiny catheter into the affected cavity (in Compton’s case, both sinuses were treated.)

Next, the physician inserts a small balloon, similar to those used for cardiac angioplasty, along the wire inside the catheter. Once the balloon is properly positioned in the blocked area, the doctor inflates it, dilating the sinus opening. As the deflated balloon is removed, the sinuses drain.

The physician may have to irrigate the sinuses to flush out stubborn mucus or other material, but often, the relief is immediate.

“Patients usually feel a decrease in pain and pressure right away,” Dr. Fishkin added. “In most cases, the patient is pain-free, breathing well, and ready for normal activity within a couple days,” Dr. Fishkin said.

Sinuplasty means no incision, no mechanical debriding of tissue or bone, little or no bleeding, and a success rate that exceeds 90 percent.

“It’s pretty amazing technology,” the doctor added.

Compton agreed. Though it took most of her Thanksgiving break to feel back to 100 percent, Compton is thrilled she had it done.

“The most amazing thing is that I’ve been able to breathe through both nostrils,” she said. “That was the most noticeable for me: how much air I was really getting in for the very first time.”

While Compton spent most of her summer break indoors last year, that’s definitely not the case this year.

“I’m back to walking my dog and swimming,” she said. “I’m planning a vacation. I feel great.”

Compton continues to take allergy medication to combat seasonal symptoms and never leaves home without her nasal saline spray, which helps to keep her sinuses moist.

“I’m so glad I had this done,” she concluded. “I went into this completely antisurgery. Dr. Fishkin was wonderful; she tried all the other options first. But this was the best option for me.”

For more information about balloon sinuplasty, or for a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist, call Ingalls Care Connection at (708) 915-CARE (2273), or go online to make an appointment at

Provided by Debra Robbins for Ingalls Health System