The uvula is the teardrop-shaped structure composed of soft tissue that hangs in the back of the throat. The composition of the uvula consists of connective tissue, muscles, and glands that produce saliva.
Every time you swallow food, the uvula, along with the soft palate, prevents it from regurgitating up your nose.
Since the uvula is observable by everyone with a mirror, people often question the exact function of this weird looking structure.
By far, the most important clinical relevance of the uvula boils down to its role in obstructive sleep apnea and how it can block the upper airway momentarily.
In this article, we will discuss the functions of the uvula, as well as the procedure of removing it (e.g., indications, surgery).
The anatomy of the uvula
The mouth has fascinating anatomy that ensures several physiological functions, including the passage of food, moisturizing the air during inspiration, chewing, digestion, and more.
The roof of the mouth, in particular, is lined with a moist structure known as the palate. This palate consists of two parts:
The hard palate – this part is found anteriorly (in the front) of the mouth, with the primary purpose of separating the nasal cavity from the mouth.
The soft palate – this part is not bony, which means it has a lot of flexibility to move inside the throat during eating and drinking. It blocks the food from going up the nasal cavity.
We can find the uvula at the back of the soft palate, which is why you’ll often hear healthcare professionals referring to it as the palatine uvula. On each side of the uvula, you’ll find the tonsils.
What is the function of the uvula?
For decades, scientists believed that the uvula was merely a vestigial remnant of different embryological processes; however, we now have a better understanding of the swallowing physiology, which revealed the real purpose of the uvula.
According to Penn State University, the uvula aids in the person’s speaking ability and prevents choking by initiating the gag reflex in case you ingest an unusually large bolus of food.
The uvula also prevents food from going up the nasal cavity, which may be uncomfortable, and in some cases, dangerous.
As you swallow food, the soft palatine and the uvula will move back and upward, blocking the only entrance to the nose from the throat.
Note that some food particles will pass from the mouth to the nose, which enhances the tasting experience by stimulating the olfactory nerve endings.
What could go wrong?
Similar to other body parts, the uvula is not exempt from different disease processes, such as infections and inflammation.
When this occurs, we refer to it as uvulitis, which is the result of an infection, allergy, or physical injury. According to Alberta Health Services, symptoms of uvulitis include edema (i.e., swelling), redness, sore throat, dysphagia (i.e., difficulty swallowing), and a general sense of throat congestion.
For the most part, you will not need to visit a doctor when dealing with uvulitis; however, if you experience severe symptoms, it is best to consult with your primary care physician.
Here are some home remedies to subside symptoms of uvulitis:
Keep yourself hydrated – water prevents dehydration, which often worsens inflammation and infections.
Gargle with saltwater – saltwater disinfects your mouth from all sorts of microbes, which prevents bacterial overgrowth.
Avoid smoking – smoking is a trigger of uvulitis that could significantly exacerbate your condition.
If your symptoms persist, it may a sign of a bacterial infection, which is also known as strep throat.
Uvula removal is a surgical procedure referred to as a uvulectomy.
Your doctor may recommend this procedure to treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). You see, some people have unusually large uvulas that may block the respiratory pathway during sleep. As a result, brief pauses of breathing occur, which is the hallmark of OSA.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by abrupt pauses in breathing that occurs periodically during sleep. This condition increases the risk of numerous ailments, including cardiovascular events, respiratory failure, and acid-based disturbances (especially in children).
Risk factors of OSA include obesity, diabetes, chronic blood hypertension, and a sedentary lifestyle.
According to estimates, 22 million U.S. citizens have OSA. Additionally, experts believe that the vast majority of OSA cases are undiagnosed, which leaves room for some mind-boggling numbers.
In Australia, researchers predict that 1 out of 10 Australians has undiagnosed OSA. This incidence becomes significantly more notable in males between the ages of 40 to 69 years, with almost a 50% incidence rate.
In other words, half the male population that falls inside this age window has undiagnosed OSA. After reaching 70 years old, the incidence becomes 62%, according to the same study.
For these people, removing the uvula will stop snoring and improve symptoms of OSA.
In many cases, your doctor will only remove a part of the uvula, which is a surgical procedure that’s usually performed as part of uvulopalatopharyngoplasty.
If you have OSA and medical history of recurrent uvulitis, you may want to speak to your doctor about the potential impact of this condition on OSA.
You can expect to receive medical or surgical treatment, depending on the severity of your OSA, as well as the precipitating role of the uvula.
Make sure to ask your doctor about the potential side effects of this procedure.
The uvula is an important anatomical structure that ensues several roles in the upper respiratory tract. However, when it becomes an obstacle for breathing or healthy sleep, doctors may suggest its removal by surgery.
With ongoing research and the constant influx of new information about the physiology of the throat, we may discover some concealed benefits of the uvula that weren’t considered before.
Hopefully, this article cleared out some of the confusion about the role of the uvula, but if you still have any questions or concerns about the procedure, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comment section below.