Slimmer tongues may be key to alleviating obstructive sleep apnea

A common and potentially serious sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea may be alleviated by a slimmer tongue, according to a new study out of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. Slimming down one's tongue size was found to be a 'primary factor' in reducing how severe one's obstructive sleep apnea symptoms are, helping improve sleep quality and reduce the potential health consequences associated with this disorder.

Obstructive sleep apnea refers to a condition in which one's airflow is temporarily blocked during sleep, preventing the person from breathing properly. This condition may go unnoticed in mild cases, but can also be severe, causing the person to repeatedly wake up during the night, suffer from morning headaches, persistent tiredness, and more. If left untreated, this condition can cause high blood pressure, heart problems, tissue damage, and more.

The temporary treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is the use of a CPAP machine, but in many cases, losing weight can reduce the severity of or completely eliminate the condition. With the exception of people who suffer from a recessed jaw or large tonsils, the primary factor in obstructive sleep apnea was believed to be largely caused by fat on one's neck.

According to the new study, however, fat causing an enlargement of the tongue may be the primary factor in obstructive sleep apnea. The findings were made based on MRI scans of the upper airway in obese people suffering from this condition. As one loses weight, tongue fat may also be reduced, causing a decrease in the severity of the condition.

The team found that obese people who also have obstructive sleep apnea were more likely to have 'significantly larger tongues' and higher amounts of tongue fat in comparison to obese people who didn't have sleep apnea. To a lesser extent, the team also found that weight loss caused the jaw muscle responsible for chewing and the muscles on the sides of the airway to shrink, which also helped reduce obstructive sleep apnea severity.