Sleep Apnea Surgery: Recovery

Expected Timeline, How to Cope, and Follow-up Care

Sleep apnea surgery includes procedures that may alter the anatomy of the nose, throat, tongue, or jaw. There are multiple ways that this may be achieved, and the recovery time may vary greatly depending on the nature of the intervention. If complications occur, this may become more prolonged.

Consider what to expect in recovery from sleep apnea surgery, including the potential timeline to resume normal activities, how to cope, and what to expect in follow-up visits with the surgeon.

Doctor with patient for follow-up after sleep apnea surgery
BSIP / Getty Images

Surgery Follow-Up

Immediately following any surgical procedure that requires the use of sedating medications (including those used for pain control), or after general anesthesia, it is strongly recommended that the patient remain in the company of a responsible adult during the first 24 hours after surgery.

This is to ensure safety should the medications or surgery affect breathing, especially during sleep. If uncontrolled bleeding should occur, the responsible adult may also help to control it or be able to quickly summon help.

After nasal surgery, including the removal of turbinates or the correction of nasal septum deviation (called septoplasty), it is advised that the patient sleep with their head elevated on pillows for the first 24 hours following the procedure. There are some general guidelines that may also be useful following nasal surgery, including:

  • If sneezing occurs, do so with the mouth open.
  • Do not rub or blow the nose.
  • Change dressings as often as needed with the supplies provided.
  • Before packing is removed, it is okay to shower or sponge bathe.
  • A small amount of nasal discharge (often tinged with blood) is expected in the first few days.
  • Do not bend over, strain, or lift heavy objects for at least 2 weeks.

Some procedures will include the insertion of small plastic splints in each nostril. These splints prevent swollen tissues from adhering to each other and forming scar tissue. These may be splinted in place and will be removed at an office visit with the surgeon, often one to two weeks after surgery, when the swelling has subsided. Do not attempt to remove the splints prior to this visit.

In the case of surgery affecting the throat, tonsils, soft palate, uvula, or tongue, swallowing may be painful. This may require some modifications of the diet, especially in the first days following surgery. Soft, cold foods like ice cream may be preferred.

Regardless of the type of surgery, it is possible to resume a normal diet as tolerated. Liquids, crackers, and toast may be more tolerable at first. Avoid eating spicy, greasy, or heavy foods for at least the first 12 hours following surgery.

If the surgery requires admission to the hospital immediately following the procedure, the surgeon may check on the patient daily or prior to discharge. If the surgery is done in the clinic’s procedure room, or if it is a day surgery done in the outpatient surgery center, the patient will be sent home after sufficiently waking in the recovery room.

Further follow-up appointments will be timed based on the surgery and the presence of any complications. This may require a visit a few days after discharge or a week or two following the surgery. As recovery proceeds, further visits may occur in the months to follow. 

Recovery Timeline

In most cases, full recovery from surgery would be expected within several months. Minor procedures within the nose may be well tolerated with minimal pain or other symptoms within days following surgery.

Surgery involving the tissues of the throat or tongue may have a longer recovery, often improving over weeks. Jaw advancement surgery may take one month or longer to return to a normal baseline. 

After two months, it may be important to reassess the condition to determine the success of the surgical intervention. This may require a repeat sleep study, either a home sleep apnea test or an in-center diagnostic polysomnogram.

If sleep apnea has resolved, the residual apnea-hypopnea index should be <5 and the minimum oxygen saturation should be >90%.

As noted above, it may be possible to resume normal activity as the patient feels able to do so. This may vary in timing, based on the procedure, any associated complications, and the pain tolerance and general health of the patient.

With nasal surgery, patients are advised to avoid bending over, straining, or lifting heavy objects for at least two weeks following the procedure. This may require a delay in returning to work or resuming exercise routines. In order to understand the best timing for an individual, discuss the anticipated recovery timeline with the surgeon.

Coping With Recovery

It is expected that surgery will be associated with some degree of pain. This may be short-lived and resolved in the days following the procedure. Less often, it may persist as healing and recovery occur over weeks. It would be unusual for chronic pain to last longer.

Significant pain may be treated with over-the-counter or prescription pain medications. These should be taken as directed by the doctor, often with food to avoid an upset stomach. As soon as pain allows, the medication should be discontinued.

Be aware that medications such as narcotics or opioid medications may cause sleepiness. These medications may also cause constipation. This may be relieved with:

  • Increased intake of high-fiber foods (including fruits and vegetables)
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Taking over-the-counter stool softeners or laxatives

With nasal surgery, ice packs across the nose or cheeks may provide comfort. This may be applied three to four times per day for 20 minutes for the first 12 hours.

Please call the surgeon if experiencing foul-smelling, yellow drainage or an increase in drainage amounts, as this could be a sign of infection. The presence of fever or increased pain may also be warning signs that require prompt assessment.

If significant bleeding occurs, this may require an urgent evaluation and the surgeon should be notified promptly.

Call your doctor or 911 if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

A Word From Verywell

Sleep apnea surgery provides a unique opportunity to remedy abnormal anatomy that may predispose someone to snoring and difficulty breathing during sleep. The hope is that the procedure corrects a defect that leads to normalized breathing.

Recovery from sleep apnea surgery is usually uncomplicated, but if problems become apparent, reach out to the surgeon for further guidance. After several months, when healing should be complete, it is important to reassess the condition with updated sleep testing to ensure the full benefits of treatment are realized. In some cases, further treatment may be required.

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