Surgery no quick fix for sleep problems

The paper published in the British Medical Journal  [PDF]  (70.15K)

Friday, 4 January 2008

Surgery for obstructive sleep apnoea has no clear benefit and should not be offered as a first treatment, argue University of Adelaide researchers in this week's British Medical Journal.

Obstructive sleep apnoea is a common disorder caused by the collapse of the upper airways during sleep. This leads to loud snoring and sometimes breathing stops temporarily. The condition is associated with multiple morbidities, motor vehicle crashes, and reduced health-related quality of life. It mainly affects middle-aged, overweight men.

Guidelines recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) with weight and alcohol management, if appropriate, as the first line treatment. But upper airway surgery is becoming increasingly popular in Australia and elsewhere.

Dr Adam Elshaug and researchers from the University of Adelaide's Discipline of Public Health have analysed existing evidence for upper airway surgery and found the results of surgery are inconsistent.

One review of seven randomised trials concluded that surgery had a general lack of impact on symptoms and, even where improvements in quality of life have been shown immediately after surgery, these were rarely sustained beyond 12-24 months.

Another review of 48 studies found that up to 62% of patients who had surgery reported persistent adverse effects, such as a dry throat, difficulty in swallowing, voice changes, and disturbances of smell and taste. Up to 22% regretted having surgery.

Weight loss and other lifestyle modification is recommended as an adjunctive treatment to CPAP, but can be difficult to achieve, according to Dr Elshaug and his colleagues. CPAP therapy also depends on acceptance and adherence by patients and its benefits in mild to moderate sleep apnoea seem inconclusive, making surgery seem more attractive.

However, given the lack of clear benefit from surgery and the potential for harm indicated by currently available evidence, guidelines recommend CPAP as the first line treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea generally.

Surgery for obstructive sleep apnoea should be done within controlled clinical trials, Dr Elshaug says. Patients should be informed about the trial, as well as of the inconsistent results of surgery, the associated pain, the potential side effects, and the potential for relapse.

The other authors contributing to the paper include Associate Professor John Moss, Professor Guy Maddern and Professor Janet Hiller from the University of Adelaide.


Contact Details

Dr Adam Elshaug
Hanson Institute Research Fellow & Senior Lecturer
Adelaide Health Technology Assessment (AHTA), Centre for Health Services Research, Discipline of Public Health
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 3098

Mr David Ellis
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762