Medical tools Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious, chronic disease that affects millions of Americans.  No firm estimate is available, as OSA often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms occur during sleep.  Surgery patients who are likely to have this dangerous condition, but not screened in advance by doctors, may suffer needless  risks to their health.

Someone with OSA experiences – often unknowingly – numerous disruptions to their nighttime sleep.  They momentarily stop breathing due to an obstruction to their airways.  When breathing resumes, they are woken by a snort or gasp.  In some cases, this can happen hundreds of times each night, causing extreme fatigue for the OSA sufferer during the day.

While frequently undiagnosed, there are established physical predispositions to OSA.  Those who are overweight or have large necks, small nasal airways or enlarged uvulas are at greater risk for OSA.  More men than women have the condition, and you’re more likely to get OSA as you age.

Surgical Anesthesia Can Compound Sleep Apnea Health Dangers

Surgical patients who have OSA face unique health complications.  The anesthesia given to patients with OSA may slow down body functions that normally trigger them to wake up, so they may stop breathing for a dangerously long time.  The sedatives can relax an OSA patient’s enlarged throat muscles and block the patient’s airways, making breathing even more difficult.

OSA surgical patients are believed to have double the risk for serious post-op problems than non-OSA patients.  They include pneumonia, respiratory failure, heart attack, and death.

The Society of Anesthesia and Sleep Medicine, an educational and research group of physicians, recently published a new guideline to deal with OSA risks in surgery.  It involves the use of a short screening questionnaire.

Simple Way to Diagnose Sleep Apnea Prior to Surgery
The STOP-Bang sleep apnea questionnaire is one page that comprises eight “yes or no” questions.  It also asks for the collar size and neck circumference measurement of the patient.
The questions cover:

  • Snoring
  • Tiredness
  • Observed breathing stoppages during sleep
  • Blood pressure
  • Body Measure Index
  • Age
  • Neck circumference over 40 cm
  • Gender

Answering yes to five or more questions means you have a high risk for obstructive sleep apnea.  It takes about two minutes to complete.  The simple questionnaire has been studied extensively and has been found extremely reliable for diagnosing OSA.

It’s been estimated that as many as 80 percent of people who have OSA go undiagnosed.  But what is known are the physical traits that lead to OSA and the dangers specific to surgical patients who suffer from it.  Failure to diagnosis OSA prior to a procedure, therefore, may be an avoidable but dangerous surgical error.

If you were seriously injured or lost a family member during surgery, and you suspect it was due to a preventable mistake by your care givers, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to review your case.

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