The uvula, known as the dangling thing in the back of the throat, is very visible if you open your mouth and look back into your throat. It’s technically known as the palatine uvula, but since the other uvulae aren’t visible, most people know this is what you’re talking about if you just say “uvula.”
A swollen uvula is often blamed for snoring. As part of the soft palate, it can dangle into the airway when you sleep, narrowing the airway and providing a structure that is freer to vibrate than many other structures in the airway. This can be worsened if the uvula becomes swollen or irritated. Despite this, the uvula is often not the primary source of snoring, which is why snoring surgery is often ineffective as well as risky. An Omaha sleep dentist at the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center can evaluate your anatomy to determine the true cause of your snoring.
But even if guilty of causing snoring, the actual purpose of the uvula remains mysterious.
What Does the Uvula Do?
Although people have been trying to determine the role of the uvula for millennia, we are still not entirely certain why the uvula exists. We do know, however, that it seems to perform many important functions.
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The first is its role in the gag reflex. By dangling into the throat and being highly sensitive to contact, the uvula can help protect us from swallowing objects that are large enough to choke us.
The uvula also works during swallowing to help close off the nasopharynx–the tube that leads from your nose to your throat behind your tongue. This is supposed to keep food and drink from going up your nose, but if you’ve ever snorted food or drink when your friend tells a hilarious joke, you know this is not a flawless mechanism.
The uvula produces a lot of saliva, too, and it’s thought that this could help lubricate the throat. This is supported by the fact that dry or scratchy throat is a common complication of uvulectomy (uvula removal).
Another function of the uvula is its role in speech. The uvula seems to help make certain sounds (called, appropriately, uvular sounds) that are important in a number of different languages, including French. The uvula is also supposed to prevent speech from being overly nasal. However, it is the muscle under the uvula that performs this function, not the uvula itself.
But the importance of the uvula for speech seems to be borne out by the fact that it’s a relatively unique structure to humans. Even our closest ape relatives, chimps, don’t have them.
So, it’s likely that the uvula is another example of speech adaptations that make us susceptible to snoring and sleep apnea.
Is Somnoplasty Effective?
If you have a large soft palate or a uvula that triggers snoring, you might consider surgical reduction of these structures to reduce snoring. One such procedure is somnoplasty. An Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist (ENT) in Omaha can perform this procedure or others like it. However, there are some important things to understand about somnoplasty before you get it, including:
- Duration of results
Somnoplasty is generally considered to be effective for most people, at least in the short term. Studies show that about 70-80% of people who get somnoplasty will see a major reduction in their snoring volume. This is not an elimination of snoring, but in one study, bed partners rated the snoring of the treated partner after treatment as less than 3 on a ten-point scale.
However, it’s also important to know that somnoplasty results are not permanent. The length of results will vary, but expect them to last about a year in most cases. Then you will have to repeat the procedure to maintain the results.
Somnoplasty does have some significant risks. People might experience a change in voice, have excessive pain, bleeding, infection, or might have a prolonged healing period. Pain, prolonged healing, and more might be related to burns. Sometimes, it’s possible that after somnoplasty, the uvula might not perform its function of keeping liquids out of the nose during swallowing. This is called nasal regurgitation, and it’s considered a relatively rare complication.
Other surgical procedures for snoring that include the uvula, such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), have much higher complication rates. Some studies show overall complication rates as high as 60% for UPPP, or a risk of death as high as 1.5%. If an ENT or otolaryngologist refers you for this type of snoring surgery, get a second opinion. The surgery might be right for you, but it might be an unnecessary risk.
Keep Your Uvula, Get Snoring Treatment in Omaha
As a functional structure, you should carefully consider whether you want to have your uvula removed to treat snoring, especially since removal of the uvula can actually make sleep apnea worse. In addition, after a uvulectomy, about a quarter of patients experience long-term complications. These might include dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, and a persistent foreign object sensation in the throat.
Oral appliance therapy for snoring is typically a safe treatment option, with only minor complications such as sore jaw or teeth, that can resolve with the proper fit of your appliance. Let an Omaha sleep dentist evaluate you for a snoring appliance to see if it’s right for you.
To learn more about your snoring treatment options, please call (402) 493-4175 for an appointment with a sleep dentist at the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center, located in north Omaha, in North Park.