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How Does Tongue Position Affect Sleep Apnea?

Posted On April 21, 2014
tongue position
April 21, 2014

For the majority of people who suffer from sleep apnea, the cause is an obstruction of the airway. With obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), this blockage results in the stoppage of breathing from mere seconds to minutes. But what actually causes the blockage? Blockage can be due to the nasal airway, palate and the tongue. In most cases, to the tune of 75 percent of all sleep apnea sufferers, the culprit is the tongue because when it relaxes during sleep it falls back to block the airway. So how does tongue position affect sleep apnea?

A professor of otolaryngology at Rush University Medical Center set out to discover exactly how tongue position affects sleep apnea. As a result of his findings, Michael Friedman, MD, developed the Friedman Tongue Position classification system. According to Dr. Friedman, almost all patients have a combination of obstructions with predominant and minor problem areas. “The idea is to treat both the predominant and minor problem areas in the least invasive way possible,” said Dr. Friedman.

As per Dr. Friedman and the rest of the sleep medicine community, 75 percent of OSA patients have a significant obstruction due to the tongue and the rest primarily due to the tonsils and palate. His classification system is an easy guide to categorizing the level of tongue obstruction based on position.

How the System Works

Patients are assessed by opening their mouth and the physician looking inside. Tongue positions are classified into four different categories:

Position 1: No problem with the base of the tongue

Position 2: Minimal obstruction from the base of the tongue

Position 3: Moderate obstruction from the base of the tongue

Position 4: Severe problems with the tongue base.

Nevertheless, despite its ease of use as a diagnostic tool, the Friedman tongue position classification system should be used in conjunction with a sleep study for accurate diagnosis and assessment of OSA patients.

When the tongue is causing the obstruction, OSA can be treated using radiofrequency ablation (RFA). With this procedure, small bursts of energy are directed toward the tongue. As a result, treated tissue shrinks in size and produces a scar. Using RFA on the tongue for OSA works by safely shrinking down the tongue so that it no longer falls back during sleep to block the individual’s airway. Basically, this procedure jump-starts the body’s natural healing process, rejuvenating the treated area’s overall health.

Performed at Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America (SATCOA), RFA of the tongue occurs over the course of four to six treatment sessions over several months. From the time a patient enters the office, it takes no more than 45 minutes, with in-chair RFA device treatment for about 5 minutes maximum.

All SATCOA patients that have been treated with RFA have seen a 100 percent improvement of their sleep apnea symptoms: less daytime sleepiness, better concentration and improved memory, and decreased risk for developing life-threatening illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Even better news is that 73 percent of patients have their sleep apnea cured!

If you have trouble sleeping or think you have sleep apnea, please contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 to schedule a free consultation.

About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Communications for Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America, manages all content and communications for the company.
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