Practising certain tongue and other upper airway exercises may help reduce symptoms for people with sleep apnea, researchers have found.

'A recent study showed that didgeridoo playing helped decrease snoring and OSA.' — Dr. Geraldo Lorenzi-Filho

Obstructive sleep apnea or OSA is caused by the collapse of the airway during sleep, leading to a lack of oxygen and frequent waking.

If untreated, it can increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke as well as decreased attentiveness and productivity.

A small randomized trial published in the May 15 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found reduced symptoms, improved sleep quality scores, and other improvements among people with obstructive sleep apnea who exercised their upper airways compared with those who did not.

"It was commonly thought among doctors that strengthening and toning oropharyngeal muscles would have no benefit to the patient during sleep, but a recent study showed that didgeridoo playing helped decrease snoring and OSA," said Dr. Geraldo Lorenzi-Filho, who led the study at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.

"This was a change of paradigm, and indicated that not everything you do during the day is lost during sleep," he added in a release.

In the study, Lorenzi-Filho and his colleagues assigned 31 people who were recently diagnosed with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea to do a daily and weekly regimen of tongue and pharyngeal exercises or a fake regimen involving deep breathing and saline rinses of the nose.

Overall, the treatment group showed a 40 per cent decrease in the severity of their symptoms. Ten of the 16 patients in the treatment group originally classified as moderate were reclassified as mild (eight) or with no obstructive sleep apnea (two).

In comparison, no one in the control group was reclassified.

"[T]here seems to be reasonable logic to targeting tongue strength as a potential mechanism for remodelling the upper airway," Catriona Steele of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and the University of Toronto wrote in a journal editorial accompanying the study.

The exercises were adapted from traditional speech therapy techniques, Steele said.

More research is needed to understand how the exercises work and whether different patients need different sets of exercises, the researchers said.