Got Sleep Apnea? Tongue Fat May Be to Blame

Study identifies having a fat tongue as a primary factor in the common sleep disorder.
Bull dog sleeping on side with tongue sticking out.
Media credits
Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- Obstructive sleep apnea is a common disorder in which people stop breathing in their sleep due to blockage of their upper airway. A recent paper published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine has singled out the main culprit behind this blockage -- a fat tongue.

Obesity has long been linked with obstructive sleep apnea. The study sought to pinpoint what exactly is causing this obstruction of the airway. The researchers performed MRI scans on 67 participants with obstructive sleep apnea, before and after the patients underwent diet regimens or weight-loss surgery to help with the sleep disorder. On average, the participants lost nearly 10% of their body weight over six months, which resulted in a 31% improvement in sleep apnea.

The MRI images showed a reduction in tongue fat volume as the primary link between weight loss and sleep apnea improvement. They also found correlations between sleep apnea improvement and a reduction in the size of certain muscles -- namely, a jaw muscle used for chewing, known as the pteroid, and muscles on the sides of the airway known as the pharyngeal lateral wall -- but not to the same extent as a reduction in tongue fat.

The researchers suggest future studies should explore whether certain diets or therapeutic treatment techniques can aid in reducing tongue fat for treating sleep apnea. They also explored the role genetics may play in causing sleep apnea, and suggested that people of certain ethnicities may be predisposed to having fattier tongues.

According to study leader Richard Schwab from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, patients who suffer from snoring or sleepiness should be checked for sleep apnea.

"Primary care doctors, and perhaps even dentists, should be asking about snoring and sleepiness in all patients, even those who have a normal body mass index, as, based on our data, they may also be at risk for sleep apnea," Schwab said in a press release.


Author Bio & Story Archive

Yuen Yiu is a former staff writer for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.