How to Tell Before Surgery If You Have Sleep Apnea

Often undiagnosed, the nocturnal breathing problem puts surgery patients in danger.

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For people with obstructive sleep apnea—a condition in which people stop breathing briefly while asleep—surgery can be risky. Those with apnea have a greater chance of problems such as postoperative complications, difficult intubation, admission to the intensive care unit, and a longer hospital stay. But a new tool called STOP, which consists of a series of yes-or-no questions, may help people figure out if they're at risk—and encourage them to seek treatment before going under the knife.

Between 2 and 26 percent of the population has sleep apnea, according to widely disparate estimates. About 80 percent of men and 93 percent of women with moderate-to-severe conditions don't know they have the disorder, says a study published this week, which appears in the May issue of Anesthesiology. Diagnosing sleep apnea typically involves undergoing an overnight sleep study in a laboratory, although a home test for sleep apnea may be on the horizon.

Because so many people are unaware they have sleep apnea, the new list of questions may prove valuable, says Frances Chung, a professor at the University of Toronto's University Health Network and lead author of the study that recommends the STOP questionnaire. (Chung also answered a few questions about why apnea increases surgical risk and what you can do about it.)

The STOP questionnaire consists of the following questions; if people answer yes to two or more of them, a medical evaluation for obstructive sleep apnea may be warranted prior to surgery, Chung says.

S: Do you snore loudly?

T: Do you often feel tired, fatigued, or sleepy during the daytime?

O: Has anyone observed you stop breathing during sleep?

P: Do you have or are you being treated for high blood pressure?

While having sleep apnea may prove risky when having surgery for other reasons, a surgical procedure, ironically, is sometimes used to treat the condition. The treatment procedure used in children with sleep apnea, however, only works for some kids.