Note: This week, I move from the University of California, San Francisco to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and this change is solely for personal (non-work) reasons. I look forward to joining the team at USC, where I will continue the combination of caring for patients and performing research to advance the field of sleep surgery. I am excited about the challenges and opportunities that the move will bring.
The July 2013 issue of the medical journal Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery had an article evaluating the changes in voice after soft palate surgery (uvulopalatopharyngoplasty) with and without tongue surgery (tongue radiofrequency). Because sleep apnea surgery can involve removal, repositioning, and/or stiffening of tissues of the surrounding the throat, there is the possibility of changes in voice, even if no work is done on the voice box (larynx) directly. The research was performed by a group led by Dr. Sung Wan Kim, a surgeon at Kyung Hee University Hospital in Seoul whom I know from sleep surgery conferences, including his own where I spoke in October 2012. Sung Wan is a vocational singer (apparently quite good), leading to his interest in the topic.
This was the first study to consider voice changes after sleep apnea surgery performed on the tongue. Overall, the results were similar to previous research: changes occurred but were fairly subtle in both groups. There were no changes in the key features of voice (fundamental frequency, jitter, shimmer, maximal phonation time, and noise-to-harmonic ratio). There were changes in some of the formants, reflecting changes in the resonance of the throat. There was a change in an overall measure of voice in the group that underwent both procedures, but in only 1 (out of 25) patients was the change what would be considered meaningful to typical voice users.
The bottom line: the change in voice is not noticeable for most patients who have sleep apnea surgery
There may be changes in voice after these procedures, but the changes are unlikely to be noticed for most patients. Based on previous studies, I have always told my patients that professional voice users (like me) will likely not notice much of a difference in their voice. However, vocational and professional singers may notice these subtle differences because of the greater demands they place on their voice. I have never had a patient report a noticeable change in their speaking or singing voice after soft palate surgery or any tongue surgery except the most-aggressive approach (midline glossectomy) where I physically have to remove a substantial part of their tongue. However, the risk exists and is something to consider, especially for singers.