The more than 32,000 middle-aged veterans included in the study were either prescribed CPAP or the most widely used surgery for sleep apnea, in which the back of the soft palate is trimmed or shortened to allow air through more easily.
The surgical procedure is not considered as effective as CPAP, but Weaver says this may be a misconception.
"A significant percentage of patients -- roughly 80% -- show some improvement with surgery," he says. "When you consider this and the fact that so many patients on CPAP are non-compliant, surgery makes sense for a lot more people. The message is that surgery is an effective option for many patients who aren't doing well with CPAP."
Monitoring Is Key to Success
The veterans included in the study will continue to be followed, and Weaver says he expects the survival advantage for the surgery group to grow over time.
But sleep disorders researcher Carl E. Hunt, MD, says surgery is not an appropriate option for all sleep apnea patients who don't comply with CPAP treatment. He adds that many patients who think they can't get used to the devices can be trained to do so with the help of a sleep specialist.
"Many people with sleep apnea are not treated by specialists, but by their primary care physicians," he tells WebMD. "They are often prescribed CPAP and then sent home with little or no monitoring, and they don't have access to the troubleshooting they need to make the treatment work. Careful monitoring is critical, but too often overlooked. CPAP works, but only if a patient uses it."