Although a CPAP machine is generally the first line of treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, one recent study found that oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) exercises can also help!
The study looked at 30 patients with obstructive sleep apnea that were divided into 2 groups. The first group received a supervised exercise program including oropharyngeal, posture and cervical region exercises for 12 weeks. The patients in the control group were informed about posture but exercises were not recommended.
Both groups filled out questionnaires before and after the 12 weeks that evaluated sleep quality, daytime sleepiness, depression, general health, physical activity levels and a 6 minute walk test.
After the 12 weeks, patients in the exercise group reported improved sleep quality, less sleepiness, improved general health and increase in functional capacity (better walk test).
Pretty cool stuff huh? If you’re not interested in wearing a CPAP machine just yet, or you just want to try something different to supplement your treatment, then the following exercises and techniques might be for you!
DISCLAIMER: As always, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program and to determine the best course of action for you.
Exercises & Techniques
The tongue plays an important role in breathing. It is a muscle, and like all muscles, it needs to relax while sleeping. Although relaxation is not a problem with a normal size tongue, a large tongue can obstruct the throat during sleep.
This can lead to episodes of obstructive sleep apnea, which can pose various health risks. However, there are tongue exercises that can mitigate the negative effects of obstructive sleep apnea.
This movement of the tongue can strengthen the jaw. Stretch the tip of the tongue to the nose first. Few people can reach it, but it’s fun to try.
And if you’re one of the few people with this special tongue, you’ve just learned a new party trick!
With consistency, it should make your jaw stronger. Hold each repetition for a few seconds, relax, and then repeat 10 times.
- Open your mouth wide and push your tongue out.
- Try to touch your chin with the tip of your tongue.
- When the tongue is in a full stretch, hold it there for 5 seconds.
- Repeat this 10 times a day.
- Now try to touch your nose with your tongue.
- When the tongue is stretching, hold it there for 5 seconds. Repeat this movement 10 times a day.
Objective: Exercise and strengthen the muscles of the tongue, throat and jaw.
Tongue Press Exercise
Push your tongue against your hard palate (the roof of the mouth).
- Do this for 5 seconds, then slide the tongue back of the mouth.
- At least a third of your tongue should be against your hard palate, not just the tip of your tongue.
- Keep the uvula raised for 5 seconds and repeat 10 more times.
- Keep your jaw open during this exercise and avoid biting.
- Repeat this movement 10 more times and 4 times a day.
Objective: Strengthen tongue muscles and improve strength in hyoid bone muscles.
Jaw Resistance Exercises
- Place your hand under your chin.
- Try to open your mouth while your hand pushes up to resist the movement of your mouth.
- Repeat this 10 times.
- Do this twice a day.
Objective: To strengthen and exercise the jaw muscles.
* Do not push excessively against the jaw. Apply resistance, but stop the exercises if you feel discomfort or pain.
Stretching the Soft Palate
You can help relax the muscles of the soft palate on the roof of your mouth by doing the following stretches:
- Standing in front of a mirror, start pronouncing your vowels.
- Go through them all (A, E, I, O, U) and really exaggerate the movement of the mouth.
- Look at the mirror and make sure that you form the vocal sounds by stretching your mouth.
- Slowly repeat each vowel 5 times.
Objective: By practicing these simple stretches, you will see an improvement in the tension in your soft palate.
Exercises for Throat Sleep Apnea
Throat exercises can reduce the severity of sleep apnea by strengthening the muscles of the airways, making them less prone to collapse. It may take a few weeks before you begin to notice the benefits.
Try these exercises:
Finger In Cheek
- Open your mouth and place the first finger inside the cheek on one side.
- Push your finger so that the cheek moves outward while contracting the cheek muscles to resist the push of your finger.
- Repeat this procedure 10 more times for each cheek, repeat twice a day.
Objective: Strengthen the facial muscles to improve endurance, ensure better closure of the mouth, and improved nasal breathing.
Tiger Yell Exercises
The “Tiger Yell” (sometimes also called silent screaming), is one of the best sleep apnea exercises for your throat. Essentially, you open your mouth as wide as possible, as if yawning or yelling.
However, try not to make noise when you do it. Instead, try to remove the tongue from the teeth and make it lift the uvula.
You can hold this position for a few minutes or perform an exercise within five seconds after repetition.
The “tiger yell” helps strengthen many muscles in the back of the throat, reducing the likelihood that the area will contract or collapse at night.
Objective: Exercise and strengthen all the muscles of the back of the throat.
Since sleep apnea is caused by the muscles of the throat inappropriately expanding and block the flow of air, strengthening these muscles helps to maintain more tension during sleep, keeping the airways open. Several studies have shown a relationship between oral exercises and reduced symptoms of sleep apnea.
In addition to regular exercise, it also helps to get smaller muscles for exercise, especially in the mouth, throat, soft taste, and tongue. Some of the oral cavities and breathing exercises that focus on these areas include:
One technique is to take a balloon and place your lips around the opening. Then, breathe to release air. Without removing the balloon from the mouth, repeat the exercise five times. Stop if it feels uncomfortable.
Tongue Hold Breathing:
Keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Then take 5 slow and controlled breaths. Repeat 2-3 times a day.
Singing & Playing Wind Instruments
Research has shown that in people with obstructive sleep apnea with minimal anatomical deficits, singing and playing wind instruments can improve symptoms.
The following is one example of daily singing exercises that one can do:
- Stand or sit in a comfortable position with your back straight.
- Sing the syllable “ung-gah” in a tone of song. Your soft palate moves down to touch the back of the tongue on the first syllable, then moves up and leaves the second syllable.
- Continue to sing these syllables vigorously for a few minutes at a time, several times a day.
Using a Humidifier
Dry air irritates the throat and respiratory system. The use of a humidifier opens the airways, reduces congestion, and promotes clearer breathing. For additional benefits, consider adding lavender, mint, or eucalyptus oil to the humidifier. These three essential oils are known for their anti-inflammatory and soothing benefits.
*Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to clean and use the humidifier.
Oral devices can help to relieve sleep apnea by repositioning your jaw or tongue to keep your airways open while you sleep.
The two main categories are mandibular advancement devices and tongue stabilization devices. These actions are carried out by moving the lower jaw or tongue forward to reduce obstruction in the back of the throat.
These devices range from low-cost OTC to custom-made devices by a dentist.
The American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine supports oral devices as an effective therapy against sleep apnea.
A 2015 guide recommends oral devices for people with sleep apnea who cannot tolerate a CPAP device. This guide supports custom adjustment devices versus OTC options by allowing accurate jaw positioning, which improves sleep quality.
Regular exercise can increase your energy levels, strengthen your heart, and improve sleep apnea. Yoga can specifically increase your respiratory strength and facilitate the flow of oxygen. It can also help you relax mentally so you can get to sleep easier at night.
Sleep apnea is associated with a decrease in oxygen saturation in the blood. Yoga can increase oxygen levels with various breathing exercises.
Changing your sleeping positions can reduce apnea sleep symptoms and improve night rest.
A 2006 study found that more than half of the cases of obstructive sleep apnea were location-dependent.
Research has shown that sleeping on your back can worsen symptoms. For some adults, sleeping on their side can help them breathe normally.
However, other studies have found that children with sleep apnea slept better on their backs.
Discuss body positioning and symptoms of your sleep apnea with your doctor or healthcare provider to evaluate your treatment options.
Healthy Lifestyle Changes
In addition to promoting weight loss, lifestyle changes can help a person reduce their symptoms of sleep apnea.
Examples of healthy lifestyle changes:
- Avoid smoking, which can cause swelling of the upper respiratory tract
- Limit drinking alcohol because it relaxes the throat muscles and increases the likelihood of snoring
- Getting treated for allergies to increase airflow by reducing swelling and fluid accumulation in the nasal passages
- Exercising or dieting for weight loss, which can improve swelling, positioning of the airway, and improve blood flow.
These habits can help to reduce the number of apnea episodes and associated symptoms in some people with sleep apnea.