Fat Tongues now blamed for snoring

If you are regularly in trouble with your partner or family for noisy snoring then you may now have a new excuse. According to this week’s press, if you can’t stop snoring then it may be because your tongue is just too fat.

Female doctor checking out her patient

New research says doctors should look at tongue size when screening for OSA

They were quoting a recent study that had monitored a number of people who were either overweight or obese. A main effect of this was to make them have tongues that are fatter than average, and as a result this caused the throat to be blocked, or closed during the night when they were asleep. The increased tongue fat made it much more difficult for the throat muscles normally used to position the tongue away from the airway.

If this happens to you, the repetitive blocking of the throat interrupts the oxygen supply, causes loud snoring and makes you gasp for air. These events can happen as many as 60-80 times an hour in chronic cases.

It’s already known that being overweight or obese increases the risk of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which leads to heavy repetitive snoring because the airway becomes blocked, but until now, it was thought that a larger neck was mainly to blame.

However, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States say that piling on the pounds can also cause a fat tongue – which may well be the culprit. The researchers found that obese people with OSA had a much higher percentage of tongue fat – especially at the base of their tongues – which made their tongues larger overall.

Dr Timothy Morgenthaler, President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine said doctors should look at tongue size when screening for OSA.

He said: ‘Tongue size is one of the physical features that should always be evaluated by a physician when screening obese patients to determine their risk for obstructive sleep apnoea. The scientist added the study might provide an explanation for the link between obesity and sleep apnoea and said that screening to identify fat tongues may help diagnose the condition.

In severe cases of OSA, the brain jolts the body awake, causing the airway to reopen. The person may wake up repeatedly but without knowing it, increasing their heart rate and blood pressure and preventing deep sleep. Long term, sleep apnoea is already linked with a number of chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and depression.

Dr Morgenthaler added ‘Effective identification and treatment of sleep apnoea is essential to optimally manage other conditions associated with this chronic disease, including high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and depression.’ All these conditions are regularly associated with OSA.

The study has just been published in the specialist journal Sleep.

Figures for the UK estimate that around 5% of middle-aged men, and 3% of middle-aged women suffer from OSA, with the equivalent figures in the North America being significantly higher, but the majority of people ignore their snoring and other symptoms and it goes dangerously untreated.

Generally sleep apnoea goes undiagnosed for a long time. It can’t be detected during a routine Doctor’s appointment, and there’s no blood test to diagnose it. In fact most sufferers don’t even know they have it because it occurs during sleep: usually the person who does know you have it is your partner, or family member.

Most cases can now be treated by use of a simple mouthpiece worn at night. These are called MAD’s (Mandibular Advancement Devices). These devices attempt to bring the lower jaw forward, thus opening up the airway in the back of the throat. They are worn only during sleep.

Oral appliances such as the SleepPro Custom have been demonstrated to be highly effective – especially in patients with mild to moderate sleep apnoea (between 5 and 30 events per hour) and it is highly recommended.

By John Redfern