Cutting-Edge Sinus Treatment Offers New Hope

It's an annual rite of passage for those who suffer from seasonal allergies: sinuses so blocked it's difficult to breathe, a recurring headache, a feeling of constant "pressure" on the face.

But for people like Michele Lynch who suffer from chronic sinusitis, allergy season seems to last all year. "I couldn't work. You can't breathe. I couldn't sleep," she said.

Lynch, 24, had suffered from sinusitis most of her life -- the result of abnormal bone growth in her sinuses. But a few weeks ago, doctors suggested she try a radically new treatment that's been available in the United States only since December.

The procedure, called balloon sinuplasty, opens sinus cavities the same way doctors open clogged arteries when they do a balloon angioplasty.

"This is a wonderful, wonderful advantageous technology for patients," said Dr. Peter Catalano of the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.

With the patient under a general anesthetic, doctors thread a guide wire equipped with a tiny balloon into the nostrils and up to the blockage. They then inflate the balloon about a quarter of an inch -- just enough to open the passageway. The balloon is then deflated and withdrawn.

After the sinuplasty, the sinus openings become significantly wider. In most cases, they stay that way, because the balloon has actually fractured the bones and spread them apart -- all without pain.

"The bones in the sinus drain are very soft, thin bones. Extremely malleable and therefore there is no pain," Catalano said.

And in many cases, balloon sinusplasty appears to be more effective than conventional surgery.

"It allows for no incisions or cutting. There's no bruising or swelling," said Dr. Howard Levine of the Cleveland Nasal/Sinus Center.

Which means Lynch was back at work the next day.

"This procedure made a huge difference in my life," she said. "Since the procedure I can't say I've even had a headache, and breathing is so clear."

This story was reported by World News Tonight correspondent John McKenzie.