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Medical Intel

Apr 2, 2019

Sleep apnea, or when patients temporarily stop breathing during sleep, can be cured with corrective jaw surgery. Dr. Ravi Agarwal explains how it works and what to expect during recovery.



Intro: MedStar Washington Hospital Center presents Medical Intel where our healthcare team shares health and wellness insights and gives you the inside story on advances in medicine.

Host: Thanks for joining us today. We’re speaking with Dr. Ravi Agarwal, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and the residency program director for the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Welcome, Dr. Agarwal.

Dr. Ravi Agarwal: Thanks for having me here today.

Host: Today we’re discussing corrective jaw surgery for obstructive sleep apnea and breathing issues. Dr. Agarwal, how is the jaw related to breathing conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea?

Dr. Agarwal: Great question! Most people do not realize that the top jaw and the bottom jaw do more than just allow us to eat and chew. These bones also serve as attachments to a lot of muscles around the face and neck, which support both the tongue and the airway. For example, patients who have an obstructed upper jaw may also have a narrowed nose, making breathing through their nose more difficult. Or, patients with small lower jaws will have a smaller area for their tongue to sit in and have more tongue obstruction while they’re sleeping, leading to obstructive sleep apnea.

Host: Could you describe your patient population for this type of corrective jaw surgery?

Dr. Agarwal: There are two different populations that we see for corrective jaw surgery. The first population are those patients who have jaw deformities, like underbites, deep bites, jaw asymmetries, or usually working with an orthodontist for braces and ultimately would need jaw surgery to correct the alignment of their jaws. These patients often have issues like difficulty with chewing, breathing problems, speech problems, jaw pain, and even concerns about their appearance. All of these complaints we are able to adjust with corrective jaw surgery. As you can imagine, a significant portion of these patients are teenagers, young adults - but we are starting to see a lot of adults who wish to undergo the same procedures. The second population that we see are patients with obstructive sleep apnea or breathing issues related to sleeping. They have a diagnosis of sleep apnea and they acknowledge that they stop breathing at night and have a lot of associated problems with that, such as excessive daytime fatigue, sleepiness, unable to perform their jobs, have fallen asleep while driving. Most of these patients are working with a medical provider. They maybe have tried CPAP, the mask that they wear at nighttime to help them breath. But many of them find this problematic and look for a surgical solution. As I mentioned, the relationship of the jaws to the airway, corrective jaw surgery - those same procedures can be used to advance the jaws, which would help open up the airway.

Host: When we’re thinking about these two different patient populations, how do you decide whether jaw surgery is appropriate for them?

Dr. Agarwal: There’s a lot of factors that we look at when we evaluate a patient. Most often, if there’s an anatomic abnormality that we can detect, they may be a good candidate for jaw surgery. We determine that by 1) a clinical examination - looking at their mouth, looking at their teeth, looking at the shape of their face, the shapes of the bones. We also utilize x-rays, 3 dimensional x-rays, to look at the size of their airways, the dimensions of the airways, and the dimensions of their jaws. Based on their problems, and what we see clinically, we can discuss with the patient if they’re a candidate for corrective jaw surgery.

Host: Could you describe how these types of surgeries are performed?

Dr. Agarwal: Corrective jaw surgery is a surgery that’s done all from inside the mouth. A significant number of patients will probably be working with an orthodontist, so they may have braces - which we actually use during the surgery. What we do is we make incisions in the gums around the jaws, we access the bones, and we use specialized instruments to make cuts in the bone. Once these bones are split, we’re able to reposition them in a new predicted position using splints that we had made before the surgery. The bones are then stabilized with small plates and screws, which you won’t feel or know they’re there and we then use dissolvable stitches to close the gums. The surgery is done under general anesthesia in the operating room and most patients will have an overnight stay in the hospital.

Host: Is there anything that patients have to do to prepare for surgery, perhaps the day of or getting any tests beforehand?

Dr. Agarwal: In general, patients who are getting corrective jaw surgery are undergoing a preoperative medical clearance, very similar to other major surgeries that are happening. Preparation is different, depending on what the patient’s desires are. Someone who wants to straighten their teeth and straighten their bite with the corrective jaw surgery to help their breathing, may be in braces and have undergone orthodontics for one to two years prior to even having the surgery. When they’re in that situation, we work closely with the orthodontist to make sure everything is done correctly prior to taking them to the operating room for the surgery.

Host: How long does recovery typically take and are there any restrictions for eating, talking or exercising afterward?

Dr. Agarwal: The recovery for corrective jaw surgery starts immediately after surgery. Usually there’s an overnight stay in the hospital, where we’re monitoring them to make sure they’re recovering well. But once they get home, there are a few restrictions. Most patients will need about two weeks at home due to the amount of swelling they’ll have. During those two weeks, we ask that they do not do any heavy lifting or exercises. But they can do daily activities such as washing the dishes, cleaning, and housework. After two weeks, most patients can start doing light exercise. But generally, we wait to six weeks before they can perform full physical activities. In terms of their diet, obviously we’re doing a lot of work inside the mouth and the bones of the jaws, and so patients will need to be on a full liquid diet for six weeks.

Host: What about teenagers who are playing sports? How long do they have to sit out?

Dr. Agarwal: For most sports we ask them to sit out for about six weeks. But, after two to three weeks, they definitely will be able to do light physical activities such as jogging and light weights. After six weeks they can return to full sports. The only caveat to that is patients or teenagers who play sports where facial injuries are common. In those situations, I may ask that they refrain from those sports for three months, because at that point the bones have really matured and there’s no further risk to them.

Host: Are these patients sitting with their jaws wired shut?

Dr. Agarwal: Nope. Patients jaws are not generally wired shut after this type of procedure. Using the techniques we utilize today and the plates and screws that we use, we’re able to not have to wire a patient’s jaw shut.

Host: Obviously there are some things that you can’t control - so, the way your jaw is built, your anatomy. But for something like obstructive sleep apnea, is there anything that patients can do to reduce their risk for needing surgery or that they can do to improve their condition otherwise?

Dr. Agarwal: You know, obstructive sleep apnea is definitely a multifactorial medical disease. A vast majority of patients, it may be related to weight, size - so exercise, weight loss would be some of the biggest things that could help reduce their chance of developing or having obstructive sleep apnea. There are non-surgical treatments for obstructive sleep apnea. The biggest one is CPAP. But for patients who don’t tolerate CPAP, there are options for oral appliances. These are devices that are generally made by dental or dental providers that would fit into their mouth and, essentially, shift their bottom jaw forward while they’re sleeping at night. By shifting the bottom jaw forward, it opens up the airway and reduces the obstructive sleep apnea.

Host: Could you describe some of the benefits of this type of surgery?

Dr. Agarwal: There are a lot of benefits to corrective jaw surgery. Obviously, getting the teeth and the jaws in a better position, patients are able to chew better, chew more efficiently, some of their speech problems may be improved. If they have concerns about pain, having the jaws in a better position can reduce their pain. And obviously, like we discussed, breathing. There are other nice results that come from jaw surgery such as an improved smile and an improved facial appearance. One of the things we keep in mind when we’re doing jaw surgeries - how to improve their facial harmony. So, patients often have more confidence about themselves and appreciate the way they appear. However, with all the benefits, there are side effects to every surgery that we perform. Outside of the recovery that we discussed earlier, one of the side effects of corrective jaw surgery is that patients may have some numbness of their lips, teeth and gums, as when we are working in these bones, the sensory nerves are in that region. After one year though, a vast majority of patients have no issues related to the numbness.

Host: Could you share a treatment success story from your practice?

Dr. Agarwal: As you can imagine, there are a lot of treatment successes when you do corrective jaw surgery to help someone breath. One that comes to my mind was a gentleman we took care of who came to his consultation with his family and his kids. And, the patient was trying to explain to me about how he struggled with sleeping and snoring. And then his young child just drops everything and says, “Daddy snores really loud!” And the dad just looks at me and says, “See? I really have a problem with sleeping.” And, you know, a few weeks after surgery, I see him for his post-op and I said, “How are those kids doing with the sleeping?” He says, “It’s peaceful in the house. Everybody’s so happy that I can breathe and I’m not snoring anymore.” And these are the things that really, really...why we enjoy doing this procedure because it really can be life changing, both from a functional standpoint but even from a family standpoint.

Host: What are some of those other issues that you can help correct when you do these types of surgeries, either for the patient or their quality of life at home?

Dr. Agarwal: In the teenage years, if there’s a jaw deformity, there are a lot of psychosocial components - that a patient may have trouble at school with their appearance or may have lack of self-confidence. And, corrective jaw surgery, I’ve seen, has changed the way a patient will present themselves afterwards. They’re excited, they have a lot more confidence, they’re doing better at school. As well as those who are concerned about being able to chew and chew efficiently and get a lot of jaw fatigue. By getting the teeth and jaws in a better alignment, those problems will go away.

Host: Why is MedStar Washington Hospital Center the best place to receive corrective jaw surgery?

Dr. Agarwal: Our hospital is one of the rare institutions in the region that have a dedicated oral and maxillofacial surgeon working. We are one of the busiest centers in the region when it comes to corrective jaw surgery. You will not find a center in the state of Virginia or Maryland that does more jaw surgery than we do. With that comes experience. We’ve seen a lot of different types of deformities, we’ve really advanced our skills in specializing in corrective jaw surgery. One of the technologies we use is taking 3D CT scans and performing virtual planning, working with a third party provider, for us to virtually plan your surgery before you’re in the operating room so that we can pick up on, ‘are there are going to be any issues and are we going to be happy with the outcome that we’re providing.’ The other reason to consider choosing our team is that we’re in a large hospital that has access to every specialty and we take care of some of the most complex patients in the region. So, having a team approach to all surgeries is really beneficial to outcomes.

Host: Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Agarwal.

Dr. Agarwal: Thank you for having me.

Conclusion: Thanks for listening to Medical Intel with MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Find more podcasts from our healthcare team by visiting or subscribing in iTunes or iHeartRadio.