Surgery is sometimes recommended, usually by ear, nose, and throat specialists, for severe obstructive sleep apnea. A patient should be sure to seek a second opinion from a specialist in sleep disorders. Few randomized clinical trials, the gold standard of medical research, have been conducted to verify the long-term efficacy of sleep apnea surgery.
The Procedure. Surgery known as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) removes soft tissue on the back of the throat. Such tissue includes all or part of the uvula (the soft flap of tissue that hangs down at the back of the mouth) and parts of the soft palate and the throat tissue behind it. If tonsils and adenoids are present, they are removed. The surgery typically requires a stay in the hospital.
The Goal of Surgery. The goal of UPPP is threefold:
Success Rates. Success rates for sleep apnea surgery are rarely higher than 65% and often deteriorate with time, averaging about 50% or less over the long term. Few studies have been conducted on which patients make the best candidates. Some studies suggest that surgery is best suited for patients with abnormalities in the soft palate. Results are poor if the problems involve other areas or the full palate. In such cases, CPAP is superior and should always be tried first. Many or most patients with moderate or severe sleep apnea will likely still require CPAP treatment after surgery.
Complications. Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty is among the most painful treatments for sleep apnea, and recovery takes several weeks. The procedure also has a number of potentially serious complications including:
In general, only a small percentage of patients experience serious complications. Many of these complications can be avoided with proper technique and experienced surgeon. A patient's health status, including presence of obesity and other health conditions, may also affect outcomes.
A variation on UPPP called laser-assisted uvulopalatoplasty (LAUP) is being increasingly performed to reduce snoring. It removes less tissue at the back of the throat than UPPP and can be done in a doctor's office. At this time, however, long-term success rates in the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea with LAUP are very modest, particularly for reducing apneas. Some doctors, in fact, are concerned that if LAUP eliminates snoring, they may miss a diagnosis of apnea in patients who have the more serious condition.
More than 50% of patients complain of throat dryness after surgery. Throat narrowing and scarring have also been reported. In a minority of patients, snoring becomes worse afterward.
The pillar palatal implant is a noninvasive surgical treatment for mild-to-moderate sleep apnea and snoring. However, the main focus of the procedure is a reduction in snoring. The implant helps reduce the vibration and movement of the soft palate. In this procedure, a doctor inserts 3 short pieces of polyester string into the soft palate. The procedure can be performed in a doctorâ ' s office and takes about 10 minutes. Unlike uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), the pillar procedure requires only local anesthesia. Studies indicate it works as well as UPPP, with less pain and quicker recovery time.
Tracheostomy used to be the only treatment for sleep apnea. It is quite straightforward:
Today, this operation is performed rarely, usually only if sleep apnea is life threatening.
Other surgical procedures may be appropriate to correct facial abnormalities or obstructions that cause sleep apnea. They may be used alone or combined with each other or with UPPP. Most are invasive and reserved for patients with severe sleep apnea who fail to respond to or comply with CPAP. They include:
Adenotonsillectomy, or surgical removal of the tonsils and adenoids, is a first-line treatment for children and adolescents with sleep apnea proven by sleep studies. It cures the condition in most patients.
Complications include respiratory illness, which occurs in about 25% of children after the surgery. The highest risk for respiratory complications is associated with:
The procedure may fail to improve apnea in some patients, such as those with very severe disease. Such children are candidates for continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.
Removal of the tonsils and adenoids alone is not an effective treatment for adults with sleep apnea, although the procedure may be effective when combined with UPPP surgery.
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