What’s Involved in Sleep Apnea Surgery?

People with uncontrolled sleep apnea are at risk for death every time they fall asleep. Since sleep apnea causes brief pauses in breathing, it also increases the risk for serious medical complications. Some people use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines to control their sleep apnea, but CPAP masks can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions. Now there are several types of surgery available to control sleep apnea and reduce the risk of complications. Since all surgical procedures have risks, discuss these treatment options with your doctor to find out if one of them is right for you.

LAUP Surgery

LAUP is a new surgery for sleep apnea that involves the use of a small laser beam. The laser beam shortens a piece of tissue called the uvula, which is a projection of the soft palate. This reduces airway vibration and makes it easier to breathe during the night. This is a type of surgery for snoring and sleep apnea, but it is more effective for those who struggle with snoring. Scientific studied have not proved its usefulness for treating sleep apnea.

UPPP Surgery

The uvulopalatopharyngoplasty is a traditional surgical method used to remove excess tissue from the throat. This procedure requires general anesthesia and has several significant risks, including bleeding, infection, nasal congestion, and pain. Most professionals agree that this type of surgery does not benefit many sleep apnea patients, but it does seem to reduce sleep apnea symptoms in some individuals. Dr. Steven Park, a New York City surgeon, says that UPPP works only 40 percent of the time. The chances of success are higher when the patient is a normal weight and has large tonsils, but not many people fit these criteria.

Radiofrequency Ablation

Removing excess tissue improves sleep apnea symptoms in a significant number of patients. One method used to remove excess tissue is radiofrequency tissue ablation. During this procedure, the surgeon uses a low-intensity radiofrequency signal to remove excess tissue from the soft palate. Because this procedure is performed with local anesthesia instead of general anesthesia, it is safer than some other types of surgery for sleep apnea. It also causes less pain and fewer complications than other types of surgery for this condition.

Plasma Blade Surgery

Some doctors now use plasma blade surgery for sleep apnea patients. This procedure allows a surgeon to reposition the tonsils, making the throat wider. Since some people have sleep apnea caused by narrowing of the throat, this procedure can reduce sleep apnea symptoms and prevent complications. The major difference between this procedure and other types of laser surgery for sleep apnea is that the surgeon focuses on repositioning the tissues instead of cutting or removing them. Since the surgeon removes less tissue, there are fewer side effects and a reduced risk of infection following this type of surgery. The recovery period is also shorter than the recovery period for other sleep apnea surgical procedures.


Some patients do not make good candidates for sleep apnea laser surgery, so surgeons turn to the tried-and-true tonsillectomy. The tonsils are tissues located at the back of the throat. They help fight infection, but it appears that people who have their tonsils removed do not experience an increased number of infections. Enlarged tonsils, also known as hypertrophic tonsils, make the airway smaller and increase the risk of sleep apnea and snoring. During a tonsillectomy, the surgeon props the mouth open and removes the tonsil tissue. The surgical cuts do not need stitches, so they heal naturally. Bleeding and infection are possible side effects of this surgery. Patients who undergo general anesthesia may also experience breathing problems. This procedure is particularly effective in children with obstructive sleep apnea, resulting in an improvement in symptoms within as little as six months.

Alternatives to Surgery

Some sleep apnea patients do not make good candidates for surgery. Certain conditions that affect the anatomy of the airway make it difficult for a surgeon to perform a successful sleep apnea procedure. Patients with heart and lung problems may not be able to tolerate general anesthesia. Lifestyle changes and other medical interventions may be more appropriate for these patients. One of the best ways to reduce sleep apnea symptoms is to lose weight, as scientists have linked sleep apnea with obesity in several studies. Eating a variety of low-fat foods, getting regular exercise, and getting enough of the essential vitamins and minerals can help sleep apnea patients jump start their weight loss efforts. Sleep apnea sufferers should also avoid alcohol, medications that cause drowsiness, use nasal sprays to keep the airway passages open, and sleep on their sides instead of their backs.

Since dental problems and distorted mouth anatomy can play a role in sleep apnea, dental appliances are another non-surgical treatment option for some patients. Oral appliances adjust the position of the tongue and lower jaw, preventing the airway from closing during sleep. This type of device is custom-fitted to each individual, so it should be comfortable. If the device causes pain or discomfort, ask your doctor to adjust it.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the most common sleep apnea treatment for adults. This machine pushes air into the throat so that the airway does not narrow during sleep. Some CPAP patients use a face mask, but others prefer to use nasal pillows or hybrid masks. Using a CPAP machine properly can prevent disruptions in breathing and ease the other symptoms of sleep apnea. There are some drawbacks to using a CPAP machine, however. Some patients report skin irritation caused by the face mask. Ill-fitting masks cause discomfort and reduce the effectiveness of the machine. Regular adjustments are important, as weight loss and other lifestyle changes can alter the way the mask fits against the face.

If your doctor recommends sleep apnea laser surgery, discuss the benefits and possible risks before committing to the procedure. Your doctor should tell you exactly what to expect so that you can make an informed decision. If you decide to have sleep apnea surgery, follow all of the doctor’s preparation instructions carefully to reduce the risk of complications.

About Leigh Ann Morgan

I write about all sorts of things but ever since I completely got rid of my constant neck pain by finding the perfect pillow, I've started to learn as much as I can about sleep quality and sleep disorders.