The uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) procedure is probably one of the most controversial issues in sleep medicine for sleep apnea treatment. Despite study after study showing limited success rates, surgeons continue performing this procedure. Some in the sleep community are adamant that with such low success rates, it should not be performed anymore. But then there are studies that come out once in a while that show there’s some benefit to this procedure. With all the conflicting information and confusion, who are you to believe?
A recent paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings concluded that there’s still a role for the UPPP in some sleep apnea patients. While not "curative" in all patients, a significant number of people had improvements not only in their sleep apnea scores, but also in quality of life measures. (Take a look at my response to Sleep Apnea Ed’s blog here.)
With the UPPP, the overall "success" rate is found to be around 40% in numerous studies. You could say that it doesn’t work most of the time (60%), or that it worked 40% of the time. Is there a way to predict who’ll respond and who won’t? A common screening system developed by Dr. Friedman showed that if you have very large tonsils and a relatively low-sitting tongue, and you’re not very overweight, then you’ll have about an 80% chance of surgical "success." Unfortunately, not too many people fit into this category.
ENT surgeons tend to overly focus on the soft palate, mainly because that’s where the snoring is coming from, and it’s the traditional operation that we do for snoring and sleep apnea. Now we know that the soft palate is only a small part of the condition that causes sleep apnea. Once you address the entire upper airway (from the tip of the nose to the voice box), then surgical success rates can go as high as 80%. If you make the jaws much larger (the maxilla-mandibular advancement, or the MMA), success rates are well above 90%. The thinner you are, the better these procedures will work.
One study that I recall showed that even the 40% success rate was better in the long term than CPAP. Patients were recruited from a VA hospital with newly diagnosed sleep apnea and two groups were followed: CPAP users and UPPP patients. What why found a few years later was that you had a higher chance of being alive if you underwent a UPPP than if you were assigned to the CPAP group. Even though the overall success rate for UPPP is only 40%, these 40% stayed "successful", at least for the first few years. CPAP users, on the other hand, probably began to drop off in using their CPAP machines, at after a few years, compliance was poor. Based on research that shows that your overall risk of dying from cardiovascular disease in much higher if your have untreated sleep apnea, these results make sense.
Of course there’s still a lot more we as physicians can do for sleep apnea patients before they even consider surgery (counseling for CPAP, oral appliances, etc.), but once they run out of all other options, it’s important to know the facts and see the big picture. With good patient selection, intensive counseling, and setting realistic long-term goals, surgery can be a good option for some people. Usually, a UPPP alone is never the answer.
How many of you have undergone a UPPP operation and it didn’t help? How much counseling, follow-up and support did you receive with CPAP or oral appliances? Was multi-level surgery offered besides just a UPPP? Please enter your response in the text area below.