For an estimated 9 to 24 percent of the U.S. population, sleep apnea saps them of strength and impacts their functioning on a daily basis. The chronic condition is a serious one: if left unmanaged, sleep apnea can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and death.
Here’s how sleep apnea occurs:
Normally, when people sleep, the muscles in their throat relax and breathing can become restricted. For sleep apnea sufferers, the restriction is more prevalent leading to a complete collapse of the airway. As oxygen levels decrease or breathing becomes obstructed, the body will wake itself up, allowing respiration to return to normal.
Sleep apnea suffers can wake up multiple times throughout the night, and sleep becomes completely disrupted, creating a cycle that eventually leads to sheer exhaustion.
Patients with sleep apnea will generally try a new body position, pillow, mattress or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine to find some relief. After these traditional methods have been exhausted, some patients may resort to surgery.
And that’s where Jennifer Hsia, M.D., University of Minnesota Medical School assistant professor of Otolaryngology and University of Minnesota Physicians sleep surgeon comes in.
Dr. Hsia performs several different surgeries that helps manage symptoms and risk factors associated with sleep apnea so patients can lead a fuller life and reduce the risk of developing other diseases.
Typically, narrowing of the airway can occur at three different levels – the nose, the soft palate, and/or the tongue. Sleep surgical procedures are aimed at creating an upper airway that is more open and more resistant to collapse during sleep. This is accomplished by either removing areas of obstruction or rearranging the tissues of the airway.
Sleep surgery uses a combination of traditional surgical techniques as well as new technological tools, such as robotic-assisted surgery. According to Hsia, the role of sleep surgery is two-fold. (1) It can help patients tolerate their CPAP machine better by decreasing pressure requirements and (2) for patients who are not able to use CPAP at all, surgery provides an alternative treatment option.
“If people could avoid surgery that would be best,” Hsia said, “but there exists a significant percentage of sleep apneics who are unable to use CPAP and need another treatment option. In my experience, patients who really need this type of surgery have responded well and have tolerated the procedures very well.”
The surgery is now safer, more effective and helps provide a salvation to patients who can’t get a good night’s sleep.
Hsia offers this bit of advice to prospective patients: “Every patient is different so it’s important to be evaluated by a sleep surgeon to help develop a personalized surgical treatment plan.”