Obstructive sleep apnea involves pauses in breathing during sleep. These breathing pauses occur when the tongue and soft tissue of the throat collapse and block the airway.
What if you exercised the tongue and the throat muscles each day? Would strengthening and toning these muscles prevent your airway from collapsing?
This idea gained support from a small study in 2006. Sleep apnea severity improved in people who learned to play the didgeridoo.
A new study from Brazil used an exercise regimen to put this theory to the test. The small study involved people with moderate sleep apnea; 16 participants performed daily exercises for three months.
The British Medical Journal Group reports that the exercises were developed from speech therapy. One technique was to repeatedly press the tongue up against the roof of the mouth. Participants also practiced sucking in the cheeks. Another technique was to repeatedly blow up a balloon after breathing in through the nose.
Results show that sleep apnea symptoms improved after performing the exercises each day for three months. Snoring intensity and frequency decreased. Daytime sleepiness and sleep quality improved. Neck circumference even decreased by about 1 cm.
Sleep apnea severity also improved; the average number of breathing pauses dropped from 22.4 pauses per hour to 13.7 pauses per hour.
"These data suggest that the exercises were able to promote remodeling of the upper airways," study author Dr. Geraldo Lorenzi-Filho said in a prepared statement. “This indicates to us that these exercises have significant potential to improve symptoms in sufferers of OSA.”
It is important to note that the treatment was not tested on people with severe sleep apnea. And 14 of 16 participants still had mild or moderate sleep apnea at the end of the study.
Lorenzi-Filho noted that it is unclear if all of the exercises were essential. One of the techniques may have been more effective than the others.
The most effective treatments for sleep apnea are CPAP and oral appliances. A sleep specialist at an AASM-accredited sleep center can determine which treatment option is best for you.