This paper, which has been reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors of the American Sleep Disorders Association, provides the background for the Standards of Practice Committee's parameters for the practice of sleep medicine in North America. The intent of this paper is to provide an overview of the surgical treatment of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, to provide the basis for the American Sleep Disorders Association's practice parameters on this subject and to share our findings of metanalysis of previously published studies regarding uvulopalatopharyngoplasty. We searched MEDLINE from January 1966 through April 1993, with an update in February 1995, to provide a review of the application of surgical modifications of the upper airway to treat adults with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Operations to treat obstructive sleep apnea syndrome include nasal septal reconstruction; uvulopalatopharyngoplasty; uvulopalatopharyngoglossoplasty; laser midline glossectomy; lingualplasty; inferior sagittal mandibular osteotomy and genioglossal advancement, with hyoid myotomy and suspension (the entire process is referred to as GAHM); maxillomandibular osteotomy and advancement, and tracheotomy. Papers included in metanalysis provided preoperative and postoperative polysomnographic data on at least nine patients treated with uvulopalatopharyngoplasty for their obstructive sleep apnea. Analysis of the uvulopalatopharyngoplasty papers revealed that this procedure is, at best, effective in treating less than 50% of patients with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. The site of pharyngeal narrowing or collapse, although identified by different and unvalidated methods, has a marked effect on the probability of success of uvulopalatopharyngoplasty. Patients who achieve a favorable response with uvulopalatopharyngoplasty tend to have less severe obstructive sleep apnea than those who do not. For patients who demonstrate retrolingual narrowing or collapse, other surgical modifications have been described, such as lingualplasty, GAHM, and maxillomandibular osteotomy and advancement. The studies to support the use of the surgical treatment of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome contain biases related to small sample size, limited follow-up and patient selection.