Alternative interventions for obstructive sleep apnea

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Release date: September 1, 2019
Expiration date: August 31, 2022
Estimated time of completion: 0.75 hour

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Positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy is the gold standard treatment for patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and has been shown to positively impact quality of life and cardiovascular outcomes. However, not all patients with OSA can use or tolerate PAP therapy. Alternative interventions to PAP include lifestyle measures, surgical interventions, hypoglossal nerve stimulation, oral appliance therapy, and expiratory PAP devices for OSA. While these alternative interventions may benefit patients and have demonstrated improvements in OSA and quality-of-life measures, the cardiovascular impact of these interventions is uncertain as data are limited.


  • Alternative interventions for OSA are available for patients who cannot use PAP therapy.
  • Lifestyle interventions that may benefit patients with OSA are weight loss, exercise, change in sleep position, alcohol avoidance, and a review of concomitant medications.
  • Surgical interventions for OSA target the airway obstruction and include uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, maxillomandibular advancement, and bariatric surgery. Drug-induced sleep endoscopy is increasingly used to locate airway obstruction in patients with OSA.
  • Alternative device therapies for OSA are the implanted hypoglossal nerve stimulation system, oral appliances, and nasal expiratory PAP therapy valves.



The most widely used treatment for patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy. Improved quality of life and cardiovascular outcomes for patients with OSA using PAP have been demonstrated. However, for some patients with OSA, PAP therapy is difficult to use or tolerate. Fortunately, there are other available treatment interventions for patients with OSA such as lifestyle interventions, surgical interventions, hypoglossal nerve stimulation (HNS), oral appliance therapy (OAT), and expiratory PAP (EPAP) devices. These alternative treatments can also improve symptoms of OSA though data regarding cardiovascular outcomes are lacking.


Weight loss

Because a higher body mass index (BMI) increases the risk for OSA, weight loss should be recommended for patients with OSA who are overweight. Much of the research evaluating the effect of weight loss on OSA has methodologic limitations such as lack of randomization or controls, potential confounding variables, and limited follow-up. A randomized controlled trial of 72 overweight patients with mild OSA (apnea–hypopnea index [AHI] of 5 to 15) compared a group assigned to a very low calorie diet and lifestyle counseling with a control group.1 At 1 year, weight loss of 15 kg or more resulted in a statistically significant reduction in their AHI to normal, resolving their OSA. A 15 kg weight loss in this study was associated with an overall reduction in the AHI of at least 2 units.


Exercise is also recommended for patients with OSA, and it can lessen the severity of symptoms even without weight loss. A meta-analysis of 5 randomized trials of 129 patients reported a reduction in the AHI of as much as 6 events per hour in individuals assigned to a strict exercise regimen.2 The reduction in the AHI occurred despite a slight reduction in BMI (1.37 kg/m2).

Sleep position

For some patients, sleeping in the supine position may worsen their OSA, in which case avoiding the supine sleep position is recommended. A sleep study such as polysomnography should be performed to confirm the resolution of OSA in the nonsupine position.3 Products such as pillows or vibratory feedback devices can help the patient avoid sleeping on the back. The ability to monitor patient adherence to sleep position therapy alone is very limited.

Alcohol avoidance

Alcohol consumption depresses the central nervous system, promotes waking, and increases daytime sleepiness, thus exacerbating OSA. Patients with untreated OSA should avoid alcohol because it worsens the duration and frequency of obstructive respiratory events during sleep, and it can worsen the degree of oxygen desaturation that occurs during abnormal respiratory events.4

Concomitant medications

A review of medications in patients with OSA is warranted. Use of benzodiazepines, benzodiazepine-receptor agonists, barbiturates, and opiates in patients with OSA should be avoided especially if OSA is untreated. If these medications are necessary, careful monitoring is recommended. Medications that can cause weight gain such as some antidepressants should also be avoided.


Surgical interventions for OSA target the location of the obstruction in the upper airway. The upper airway consists of 3 regions: the palate, oropharynx, and larynx.5 More than 30 surgical soft-tissue and skeletal interventions for OSA are reported in the literature.6

Evaluating the outcomes of various surgical interventions for OSA is hindered by differences in the definition of surgical success or cure. As such, surgical interventions for OSA remain controversial. The practice parameters from 2010 reviewed surgical modifications of the upper airway for adults with OSA.7,8 Success is defined as a greater than 50% reduction in the AHI to fewer than 20 events per hour, whereas surgical cure is defined as a reduction in the AHI to fewer than 5 events per hour.7

Table 1. OSA surgical procedures and reported outcomes
Table 1 lists commonly used surgical procedures for OSA and reported outcomes, though the quality of evidence to evaluate these procedures is low.8


Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) is a surgical procedure that remodels the throat via removal of the tonsils and the posterior surface of the soft palate and uvula and closure of the tonsillar pillars, and thus addresses retropalatal collapse. UPPP rarely achieves a surgical cure (ie, AHI < 5) and has been shown to have a 33% reduction in the AHI, with a postoperative average AHI remaining elevated at 29.8 (ie, moderate to severe OSA).8 In general, 50% of patients have a 50% reduction in AHI.9 The 4-year responder rate for UPPP is 44% to 50%.10 Factors limiting the long-term success of this procedure include weight gain, assessment of surgical candidates,11 and decreased adherence to PAP therapy after the procedure.

The use of UPPP in combination with other surgical procedures has also been evaluated.8 The AHI in patients with OSA improved postoperatively when UPPP was done simultaneously or in a multiphase approach with radiofrequency ablation, midline glossectomy, tongue advancement, hyoid suspension, or maxillomandibular advancement, though greater improvement was noted with the multiphase approach.

Drug-induced sleep endoscopy (DISE)

Maxillomandibular advancement

Maxillomandibular advancement is a surgical procedure that moves the maxilla and mandible forward and expands the facial skeletal framework via LeFort I maxillary and sagittal split mandibular osteotomies. Maxillomandibular advancement achieves enlargement of the nasopharyngeal, retropalatal, and hypopharyngeal airway. This increases tension on the pharyngeal soft tissue, which enlarges the medial-lateral and anteroposterior dimensions of the upper airway.14

A meta-analysis of 45 studies evaluated the change in the AHI after maxillomandibular advancement in 518 patients.15 Secondary outcomes were surgical success (> 50% reduction in AHI to < 20 events per hour) and surgical cure (AHI < 5). Patients with a higher preoperative AHI achieved the greatest magnitude reduction in AHI but were less likely to achieve surgical success or cure. Patients with a lower preoperative AHI had a greater likelihood of surgical success and cure.

Bariatric surgery

Bariatric surgery is increasingly used for treatment of OSA in individuals with morbid obesity. A systematic review of bariatric surgery including the roux-en-Y gastric bypass, laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy, and biliopancreatic diversion evaluated 69 studies with 13,900 patients with OSA.16 OSA was found to be improved or eliminated in 75% of patients for all bariatric surgery procedures.


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