People with sleep apnea are often at higher risk for surgical complications. There are many reasons for this. Airway collapse may be responsible for intubation complications. Sleep apnea can interfere with your body’s ability to heal, leading to longer bleeding and higher risk of infection. And because of damage or disruption to your body’s cardiovascular system, you are more likely to experience cardiovascular complications related to surgical anesthesia.
But just how much more likely are complications for people with sleep apnea? A new study looking at joint replacement surgery suggests that complications are about three times more likely for people with sleep apnea.
Medicare Population Reveals Risks
This study draws from more than half a million Medicare patient records. The records cover joint replacement surgeries that took place from 2005 to 2014, about 260,000 of which had sleep apnea and the same number of matched controls who didn’t.
The population was split between patients who got total knee arthroplasty (TKA) and patients who got total hip arthroplasty (THA). In total joint arthroplasty, the joint is replaced with a prosthetic (man-made) joint.
Subjects in the study had their records evaluated for the two years following surgery, but this study only looked at 90-day surgical complication rates. They found that people with sleep apnea were 3.7 times more likely to get complications from TKA, and 2.5 times more likely to develop complications from THA.
This large study seems a definitive statement on surgical risks related to these types of procedures, but it’s not the first. Just a couple years ago, a smaller study showed a similar increase in pulmonary complications following surgery for people with sleep apnea. Other established risks include kidney-related complications.
The consistency of the research tells us that these risks are real and very serious.
How to Protect Yourself
However, there are some strategies that can help to control risk if you have sleep apnea. For example, one study showed that the type of anesthesia used was linked to the risk: people were 17% more likely to experience complications from general anesthesia than neuraxial anesthesia, which involves using local anesthesia to target certain nerves.
Other times, doctors recommend strict postoperative monitoring to help control sleep-apnea related risks. And, of course, sometimes sleep apnea treatment can help you control your risks.
Diagnosis Is Critical
But doctors won’t know to use any complication-reducing strategy if they don’t know you have sleep apnea. You can’t count on your doctor to make the connection. It’s critical for you to be tested for sleep apnea, if you have any reason to suspect it. More than 80% of people with sleep apnea are undiagnosed, and therefore at elevated risk of surgical complications and other dangers related to sleep apnea.