Tongues too large for the mouth may be causing people’s sleep problems, according to a study published on February in the Saudi Medical Journal. Apparently, large tongues put people at risk for obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a disorder in which a person’s breathing pauses repeatedly during sleep due to blocked upper airways.

Teeth imprints along the tongue, also called tongue indentations, determine whether a tongue is too big for the mouth. Obese individuals are 10 times more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea than those who are not obese.

The researchers studied 200 patients at the clinics of University of Dammam’s College of Dentistry in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Using the Berlin Questionnaire that assesses OSA symptoms, they measured the patients’ weight, neck circumference, blood pressure, tongue size, tonsils and uvula.

Obstructive sleep apnoea. Illustration by Habib M’henni

Obstructive sleep apnoea. Illustration by Habib M’henni

Twenty-three percent of the individuals were at risk of OSA, 80 percent of whom were men. The researchers found out that these high-risk participants were obese, have large tonsils, clear tongue indentations and were very sleepy during the day, based on their Epworth Sleepiness Scale score.

The lead researcher, Thikriat Al-Jewair, a clinical assistant professor from the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, says this study suggests that dentists have a responsibility to identify the signs of OSA. Nevertheless, dentists cannot diagnose it but they can still spot the big oral organs and then refer the patient to specialist.

“Dentists see into their patient’s mouths more than physicians do and the signs are easy to identify,” notes Al-Jewair.  “We need to teach students about this condition before they get out in the field and educate dentists about the major role they play in identifying and treating patients with sleep-related disorders.”

Severe cases of sleep apnoea are associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and memory loss. Al-Jewair and other researchers will include more participants of various ages to monitor their sleep at a wider scale and precisely determine the occurrence of OSA.