Not Just Obesity: Fat Tongue May Cause Sleep Apnea

When it comes to sleep apnea risk, it’s not just how obese you are, it’s where you carry fat. We already know that fat stored in the neck matters–neck circumference is an important risk factor for sleep apnea. Now, new research suggests that fat stored in the tongue may increase sleep apnea risk. Researchers suggest that this should be evaluated and considered when determining a person’s sleep apnea risk.

Obesity, Fat, the Tongue, and Sleep Apnea

Snoring and Tongue SizeResearchers at the University of Pennsylvania sought to close a gap in our sleep apnea knowledge. We knew that obesity increases a person’s risk of sleep apnea. We also knew that the tongue could cause snoring or sleep apnea by falling back into the airway, partially or fully blocking it. But what we didn’t know was whether obesity and its resultant increase in fat stored in the tongue led to increased sleep apnea risk.

To look at this question, researchers recruited 121 obese individuals, 90 with sleep apnea and 31 without.  MRI imaging was used to determine the configuration of the upper airway and show how much fat individuals were storing in their tongues. Comparing the tongue fat levels between the two groups showed that those with sleep apnea were much more likely to have significant fat storage in their tongues. However, the effect wasn’t strong enough to demonstrate causality.

But it does make sense that it would be a causal factor. Researchers discussed mechanisms that could like fat in the tongue to sleep apnea.

The most basic connection is size. More fat in the tongue leads to a larger tongue, which is more likely to result in blockage of the airway. It’s also possible that increased fat storage in the tongue would result in reduced tone in the tongue muscle, making it more likely to sag.

Treating Tongue Involvement in Sleep Apnea

There are multiple ways that researchers proposed addressing the role of a fat tongue in sleep apnea. First, they suggested that overall weight loss could be effective. Next, they proposed surgical fat removal from the tongue.

However, it’s also important to realize that oral appliances are effective at dealing with the contribution of the tongue to sleep apnea. The tongue is anchored and supported by the jaw, so moving the jaw can make it less likely that the tongue will block the airway. In addition, there are several sleep apnea appliances specifically designed to address the problem of a lax tongue.

If you would like to learn more about finding the right sleep apnea treatment for your specific cause, please call (619) 299-5925 for an appointment with a San Diego sleep dentist at Strober Dental.