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Surgery for sleep apnea

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  • Sleep apnea surgeries can be performed on areas such as your soft palate, tongue, nose, face, neck and jaw
  • Not all people diagnosed with sleep apnea are advised to have surgery, as there are safer, natural ways to ease this condition
  • Before undergoing any procedure for sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about your condition

There are surgical procedures that may help with sleep apnea, but these are highly invasive and should only be done as a last resort,1 when other treatments have proved ineffective.

WebMD notes that sleep apnea surgery can be done on your tongue, nose, soft palate and bones of your face, neck and jaw. To determine the ideal surgical procedure for your condition and discover the cause of blockage in your airway, a skinny tube called a nasopharyngoscope may be inserted by your doctor through your nose and back of the throat.2

Sleep apnea surgeries done on the soft palate and throat

If your doctor spots issues with your soft palate that may result in sleep apnea, these surgical procedures can be recommended:

Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) — Its purpose is to widen the airway behind your tongue by rearranging some tissues.3 According to the Division of Sleep Medicine of the Harvard Medical School, during this procedure the surgeon shortens the soft palate and removes the uvula and tissue located in the sides of the throat behind the tongue. Hospitalization is needed, and you’re expected to recover from an UPPP within a few weeks.4

UPPP is considered the most common type of surgery for sleep apnea,5 and may address snoring that’s common among people with this condition. However, this procedure doesn’t always cure sleep apnea and may lead to voice changes and swallowing difficulties.6

Palate radiofrequency — Your doctor uses a small needle to zap the tissue on the soft palate. As time passes, the treated tissue can become stiff and shrink.7

Sleep apnea surgeries for the mouth and throat

Sleep apnea surgery may involve parts of the mouth such as your adenoids, tonsils, tongue, hyoid bone and jaws:

Adenoidectomy — This procedure is recommended if you have swollen adenoids. Your adenoids are lymph tissues between your nose and the back of your throat in the upper airway.8

Lingual tonsillectomy9 Enlarged tonsils located at the back of the tongue may lessen airflow, prompting the need for a lingual tonsillectomy. Your surgeon will remove tissue at your tongue’s base, so there’s more space for air to flow behind your tongue.10

Genioglossus advancement — This is recommended for people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA),11 so the tongue won’t block the airway in the throat, which is usually relaxed when you get some shuteye.12

People who undergo a genioglossus advancement will stay in the hospital overnight so they can be monitored.13 The surgeon makes a cut in the lower jaw, moves the piece of bone (not the entire jaw) connected to the tongue forward and uses a small screw or plate on the surface to fix the piece into place.14 Once the procedure is done, you’ll notice that your tongue is a bit forward from the back of the airway.15

Hyoid suspension — The tongue and some of its other muscles are attached to the hyoid, a small bone in your neck. A hyoid suspension will pull the hyoid bone forward and secure it in front of your larynx.16

Maxillomandibular advancement (MMA) — An MMA aims to inhibit blocking of the air passageway by increasing space behind your tongue and soft palate. Your surgeon will first need to break both upper and lower jaws and move them forward.17 Rubber bands will be used to hold your jaws together, but they’ll be removed during follow-up consultations. If you undergo an MMA, you’ll be hospitalized for a couple days and may need to take pain medications.

Maxillomandibular osteotomy (MMO) — The surgeon will remove a portion of the chin bone, and then move your tongue and neck muscles forward. Unlike an MMA, your jaws won’t be shut during your recovery period.18

Tracheostomy — This is only recommended if sleep apnea is a severe and life-threatening situation, and once you’ve exhausted all possible forms of treatment.19 During a tracheostomy, the surgeon makes an opening in the neck, in the trachea right below your larynx or voice box.20

A metal or plastic tube is inserted in the opening so you can breathe. During the day, the opening is covered, but at nighttime it’s left open to promote airflow in and out of the lungs, and away from the blocked passageway in the throat.

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Surgical procedures for the nose

If your sleep apnea is linked to problems with your nose, your doctor may recommend to undergo these procedures:21

  • Endoscopic sinus surgery — Chronic sinusitis may be a risk factor for OSA, so an endoscopic sinus surgery may help people struggling with this health issue. The surgeon looks into your nose and sinus cavity via an endoscope, and then removes blockages and drains mucus by using specialized instruments, to promote proper airflow through the nose and better drainage from the sinuses to the nose.
  • Septoplasty — This procedure straightens a bent or deviated nasal septum, which is a “divider” separating the two sides of your nose. A deviated septum may prevent air from flowing correctly in the nose, so a surgeon may need to straighten bone and cartilage responsible for the septum’s “crookedness” and eliminate other potential blockages.
  • Turbinate reduction — Turbinates are small bones in your nose that may be enlarged, a condition that cause them to vibrate and make you snore,22 possibly predisposing you to sleep apnea. Impeded airflow can happen if you have enlarged turbinates and a deviated septum. A surgeon can shrink the turbinates’ size through any of the following: cauterization, coblation or radiofrequency ablation.

Other options for nasal sleep apnea surgery, as indicated by the Johns Hopkins Center for Snoring and Sleep Surgery, include nasal valve reconstruction or nasal tumor or polyp removal.23

Again, not all people diagnosed with sleep apnea are advised to have surgery, as there are safer natural remedies that’ll help ease this condition. Before undergoing surgery, talk to your doctor about your condition and discuss all possible options that may avoid undergoing a surgical procedure.24


Sleep Apnea: An Introduction

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Sleep Apnea Causes

Types of Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea Treatment

Sleep Apnea Testing

Sleep Apnea Surgery

Sleep Apnea Prevention

Sleep Apnea FAQ

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