According to a new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, a tongue with a high fat content  may be an important indicator of sleep apnea risk and should be considered when evaluating obese individuals. This may also recommend sleep apnea treatment that specifically treats the position of the tongue.

Obesity, Fat, the Tongue, and Sleep Apnea

Man with tongue outWe know that obese individuals have a higher risk of sleep apnea. We also know that the tongue can cause sleep apnea by falling back to obstruct the airway during sleep. And we know that obese individuals tend to have more fat in their tongues than normal-weight individuals. What we don’t know is whether fat in the tongue actually plays an important role in causing sleep apnea among obese individuals.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania sought to explore this connection in a recent study. They recruited 90 obese individuals with sleep apnea and 31 obese individuals without sleep apnea. Researchers used MRI imaging of the upper airway to determine how much fat was stored in the tongue of individuals with sleep apnea and those who did not have sleep apnea. They found that individuals with sleep apnea had significantly more fat stored in their tongue than those without sleep apnea.

Although their results weren’t strong enough to show a causal role, they did demonstrate a connection and proposed mechanisms that could account for it. First, increased fat storage would cause the tongue to increase in size, while the airway would not, making it more likely that the tongue would block the airway. In addition, the presence of fat in the tongue might make it harder for the muscles of the tongue to hold it in place.

Treating Tongue Involvement in Sleep Apnea

Researchers proposed that this discovery means that people should consider fat removal from the tongue as part of their treatment for sleep apnea. This might include weight loss (which can be effective, though it’s important to understand the limitations), or even the surgical removal of fat from the tongue (tongue liposuction?).

However, we would note that oral appliance therapy already addresses the problem of the tongue position. In addition to repositioning the jaw (which supports the tongue along with other soft tissues of the airway), some oral appliances are specifically designed to address the problem of the tongue falling back in the airway.

We can determine the exact cause of your sleep apnea and recommend a proper treatment for you, including just the right oral appliance if that’s best for you.

To talk about sleep apnea treatment in Omaha, please call (402) 493-4175 for an appointment with a sleep dentist at the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center today.