Losing weight is an effective treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), but why exactly this is the case has remained unclear. Now, researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that improvements in sleep apnea symptoms appear to be linked to the reduction of fat in one unexpected body part -- the tongue.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the effect of weight loss on the upper airway in obese patients, researchers found that reducing tongue fat is a primary factor in lessening the severity of OSA. The findings were published today in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
"Most clinicians, and even experts in the sleep apnea world, have not typically focused on fat in the tongue for treating sleep apnea," said Richard Schwab, MD, chief of Sleep Medicine. "Now that we know tongue fat is a risk factor and that sleep apnea improves when tongue fat is reduced, we have established a unique therapeutic target that we've never had before."
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Twenty-two million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, a serious health condition in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts, causing patients to wake up randomly throughout their sleep cycles. The condition, which is usually marked by loud snoring, can increase your risk for high blood pressure and stroke. While obesity is the primary risk factor for developing sleep apnea, there are other causes, such as having large tonsils or a recessed jaw. CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines improves sleep apnea in about 75 percent of patients, studies suggest, but for the other 25 percent -- those who may have trouble tolerating the machine -- alternative treatment options, such as oral appliances or upper airway surgery, are more complicated.
A 2014 study led by Schwab compared obese patients with and without sleep apnea, and found that the participants with the condition had significantly larger tongues and a higher percentage of tongue fat when compared to those without sleep apnea. The researchers next step was to determine if reducing tongue fat would improve symptoms and to further examine cause and effect.
The new study included 67 participants with mild to severe obstructive sleep apnea who were obese --those with a body mass index greater than 30.0. Through diet or weight loss surgery, the patients lost nearly 10 percent of their body weight, on average, over six months. Overall, the participants' sleep apnea scores improved by 31 percent after the weight loss intervention, as measured by a sleep study.