Surgery to Treat Obstructive Sleep Apnea

More than 18 million adults in the United States have sleep apnea, making it a common sleep disorder. If a person has sleep apnea, they stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer while asleep. They also tend to snore loudly or may snort, gasp, or choke during sleep.1

The good news is that sleep apnea can be treated. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is most often treated with a combination of lifestyle changes and machines to help with breathing. However, sometimes surgery may be recommended. Your sleep doctor will need to work with an otolaryngologist (ENT), an oral surgeon, or bariatric surgeon to decide if surgery is right for you.2-4

Surgery for obstructive sleep apnea

Surgery may be recommended if a person has a lesion, tonsils, adenoids, or birth defect that partly blocks the airway. Surgery is generally only done on people with severe obstruction if a CPAP machine did not provide enough relief. There is no set standard for who should have surgery for sleep apnea.4

Surgery to remove extra tissue

Some people with moderate to severe sleep apnea may need surgery to reduce, eliminate, or reposition tissue in and around the throat. The goal is to treat the areas that collapse and block the airway during sleep.2-4

  • Soft palate and uvula
  • Tonsils and adenoids
  • Tongue

Most people must try a positive airway pressure machine (CPAP, BPAP, EPAP, or APAP) or mouth appliance for at least 3 months before surgery is considered.4

Surgery to change bone structure

Less often, a person may need complex facial surgery to adjust bones in the jaw, nose, or other parts of the face.2

Studies show that surgery that removes extra tissue or changes facial bone structure often improves but may not eliminate sleep apnea. Also, not everyone is well enough to withstand surgery.4

Weight loss surgery for sleep apnea

Weight loss surgery may be an option for overweight or obese people with moderate to severe sleep apnea.2-4

Hypoglossal nerve stimulation

There is a nerve stimulation device that may work for certain people with moderate to severe OSA. It is called a hypoglossal nerve stimulation device and is sold under the brand name Inspire. The device has a remote control so it can be turned on before going to sleep and turned off in the morning.

The device is implanted under the collar bone during surgery. It monitors a person’s breathing patterns and stimulates the hypoglossal nerve when necessary. This makes the nerve activate the genioglossus muscle in the tongue, keeping the upper airway open. It is recommended only for people who cannot use a CPAP machine and who have a body mass index under 32. Studies show that 98 percent of people using this device are still using it after 1 year.2,4

Before any surgery for sleep apnea is considered, your doctor will want to conduct a complete review of your medical history and current overall health. Surgery is usually a treatment of last resort, so lifestyle changes and CPAP machines will be tried first.

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: July 2021