- Millions of people struggle with sleeping because of excessive snoring
- A Tongue Muscle Trainer by experts from Taiwan has proved very effective
- The device reduced sleeping problems by around 50 per cent in 7 days
Exercises for the tongue may be a new treatment option for the millions who are affected by snoring.
Early results for a device that helps patients with tongue-muscle training suggest that it reduces sleeping problems by around 50 per cent after just seven days.
Now, a larger trial is under way in Taiwan with 120 patients who have sleep apnoea, where the tissue in the throat collapses repeatedly during the night, blocking the airways.
The new device, called a Tongue Muscle Trainer, has a plastic, air-filled bulb at one end which snorers hold in their mouth while they put their tongue into various positions, such as stretching it sideways or upwards.
The patient must hold their tongue against the bulb and push until they reach a target pressure needed to stretch the muscle sufficiently.
Some of the muscles that control the tongue are also connected to the throat tissue and muscles.
The idea is that the tongue exercises help strengthen the eight tongue muscles and so help stop a significant amount of the tissues collapsing.
Tissue in the mouth and airways, including the tongue, naturally relaxes as we fall asleep. For most people, this does not pose a problem.
But for sleep apnoea patients, this tissue collapse can block the airways for up to ten seconds at a time, until the brain realises and sends a signal to contract the muscle and restore normal breathing.
The snoring sound is produced by vibrations of the tissues as air is forced through the obstructed airway. An estimated three million people in the UK are affected.
If left untreated, sleep apnoea can contribute to long-term problems such as high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack.
The standard treatment is with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) — a face mask the patient wears while sleeping, which delivers pressurised air to prevent the soft tissue collapsing.
The problem with CPAP is that many people — up to half in some studies — have difficulty wearing and using the devices as they can be uncomfortable, claustrophobic and noisy.
Poor muscle tone in the tongue is thought to play a key role in sleep apnoea. It means the tongue is more prone to relaxing too much and falling backwards into the airway while a patient sleeps.
The new tongue trainer is a handheld device — at one end is the air-filled bulb, which is roughly the size of a medicine capsule. This bit goes inside the mouth.
At the other end is a device that measures the pressure of the tongue against the bulb.
The patient has to reach a certain target pressure and, once reached, they must hold each position for 30 seconds.
Using the device, patients move their tongue into different positions, shifting the bulb so the tongue works against it.
For example, one exercise involves moving the tongue towards the cheek with the bulb pushing the tongue from the opposite side.
A study at the University of Quebec in Canada looked at the effects of the exercises, and found that patients’ sleeping problems were reduced by 48 per cent
Some research suggests that exercises can be highly effective.
A study at the University of Quebec in Canada last year looked at the effects of hour-long tongue strengthening exercises over a week in ten people who were using a similar device.
Results showed there was a reduction in sleeping problems by 48 per cent, according to the Canadian Respiratory Journal.
In the new study at the National Cheng Kung University Hospital in Taiwan, patients will use the tongue trainer for 60 minutes, three to five times a week, or CPAP every night for three months.
They will be monitored in a sleep lab at various intervals to check their sleep quality and breathing.
Commenting on the approach, Professor Jaydip Ray, a consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust says: ‘This is a simple, innovative concept with encouraging initial results.
‘Larger trials are awaited to confirm the long-term benefits.’