Did you know that exercise can help reduce sleep apnea symptoms? And when we say “exercise,” we don’t mean cardio or weights. The exercises we’ll be covering in this article are oral exercises to reduce sleep apnea symptoms by strengthening the muscles of the throat and airway.
Since sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which the relaxed muscles of the airway expand and block the flow of air, strengthening those muscles may mean that they maintain more tension during sleep—helping keep your airway open.
Several studies have shown the connection between oral exercises for sleep apnea symptom reduction. The results of one study, for example, found that regular brisk walking and weight training cut the severity of participants’ sleep apnea symptoms by 25%.
Additionally, practicing yoga can teach you how to breathe from your diaphragm, which may reduce the blockages to your airway that cause sleep apnea.
But beyond regular exercise, it’s also helpful to give smaller muscles a workout — specifically, your mouth, throat, and tongue. A study released in May 2015 found that specific oropharyngeal exercises effectively reduced snoring frequency by 36%.
While the field of oropharyngeal exercises is a relatively new one, researchers have high hopes for the benefits of these exercises.
What Does Oropharyngeal Mean?
“Oropharyngeal” refers to the area of the throat at the back of the mouth. This area includes the back of your tongue, tonsils, adenoids, palatine uvula (the ball that hangs down at the entrance to your throat), and soft palate (the back part at the top of your throat).
So, an “oropharyngeal exercise” is an exercise that you do to strengthen the muscles in and around the throat.
How Can Oropharyngeal Exercises Alleviate Sleep Apnea Symptoms?
Performing oropharyngeal exercises can help tone and strengthen the muscles that are directly involved in keeping your airway open. Similar to working out other muscles in your body, different exercises target different muscles.
According to the Apnea Treatment Center, the specific mouth exercises recommended for you will depend on which area of your mouth is the weakest.
For example, if your throat muscles are collapsing during sleep, you should focus on oral exercises for your throat. If your tongue falls back into your throat when asleep, you should focus on strengthening your tongue.
Regular mouth exercises may help reduce your sleep apnea symptoms and can make CPAP machine therapy more effective, so it’s important to know what parts you need to exercise and why.
5 Best Oral Exercises for Sleep Apnea Symptoms Reduction
Exercises that work the throat, tongue, soft palate, and jaw are widely considered to be the most effective exercises for reducing sleep apnea symptoms. Here are a few to try:
1. Tiger Yell
Your throat is usually the biggest source of OSA problems, so strengthening the long, thin muscles there can certainly help. Try the “Tiger Yell”: open your mouth wide, mimicking the facial features of a tiger about to yell or roar.
With your mouth open as wide as possible, move your tongue down past your teeth as far as you can (as if you’re trying to lick your chin). The goal is to lift the uvula for 5 seconds at a time and repeat ten times.
2. Sing Loud and Proud
Singing is a great way to strengthen the muscles in your soft palate and upper throat, which tend to get weaker as you age. In one study, people with mild to moderate sleep apnea symptoms saw improvements after a 3-month program of daily singing exercises.
Start with simple vocal vowel exercises, like singing the sound of each of the vowels in an elongated monotone.
3. Tongue Slides
Studies have shown that doing daily tongue exercises can help treat sleep apnea symptoms, often caused by the tongue collapsing on the back of your throat. One of the best tongue exercises is the “tongue slide.” Push the tip of the tongue against the roof of your mouth (the hard palate) and slide the tongue backward. Repeat this 20 times.
4. Soft Palate Stretches:
An easy stretch for your soft palate is to open your mouth as wide as you can while saying “ah” in the back of the throat. Continue for 20 seconds. Close your mouth, wait five seconds, then repeat between five and ten times.
“Soft Palate Blowing” is another exercise in which you close your mouth and inhale gently through your nose, then press your lips together and exhale by blowing the air out from your mouth. Try to blow out air for 5 seconds and repeat ten times, three or four times daily.
5. Jaw Tension Release
A tight jaw puts pressure on your breathing passages. With your tongue in the resting position and your mouth closed, arch your tongue against the roof of your mouth and slide the tip of your tongue back as far as it will go along the roof of your mouth.
Keeping your tongue in this position, slowly open your mouth until your tongue can no longer rest on the roof of your mouth. Repeat for 5 minutes, two times daily.
The relationship between exercise and sleep apnea has been proven to be a positive and hopeful one for sleep apnea sufferers. Exercising regularly (cardiovascular, resistance, as well as the oropharyngeal exercises described above) can work well alongside other treatment plans, including CPAP therapy.
As always, talk to your doctor to determine your recommended plan overall.
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Daniela has researched and published over 60 articles covering topics that aim to inform and empower people living with Sleep Apnea. As an avid reader and researcher, Daniela continues to grow her knowledge about Sleep Apnea and CPAP therapy everyday with the help of coworkers, CPAP.com customers, and members of other CPAP communities online.