The uvula is the dangling structure at the back of your soft palate. It’s 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.”
The 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 irritated or swollen. Despite this, the uvula is often not the primary source of snoring, which is why snoring surgery is often ineffective as well as risky.
But even if guilty of causing snoring, that’s not its actual purpose. What its actual purpose is remains mysterious.
Functions the Uvula Performs
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.
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 mouth. 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.
Living with Your Uvula
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.