The Uvula: Function and Problems

The uvula is the small, hanging ball that hangs from the back of your throat. Although the uvula may seem to be a rather pointless bit of hanging flesh, it actually serves a number of important functions, the main function of which is to prevent food from going into your airways when you swallow. The uvula also helps you to form speech sounds along with the back of the throat, air coming from the lungs and the soft palate. Without the uvula, speech would sound completely different.

Usually, the uvula is a soft, round shape that is similar to that of a grape. But a change in the shape or size of the uvula can very much disturb the function of the uvula, causing a number of health problems. A split or bifid uvula is the term for a uvula that is split in two, and this phenomenon is also known as a cleft uvula. Individuals born with a cleft palate will have a bifid uvula, and this split uvula is basically the result of an incomplete soft palate. Bifid uvulas have less muscle in them than a complete uvula, which can cause problems with the ears, and if the bifid uvula is particularly severe, it could prevent the soft palate from touching the back of the throat whilst swallowing, thus allowing food and drink to enter the nasal cavity.

Although bifid uvulas tend not to cause many severe problems, they are associated with a few syndromes such as Loey’s Dietz Syndrome and with frequent ear, nose and throat infections.

Other problems arising from a change in the size or shape of the uvula or from an infection of the uvula are discussed below:

  • VPI (velopharyngeal insufficiency) – this is a speech problem, also known as nasal or hyper speech, which is caused when the uvula cannot close properly against the back of the throat which can lead to the individual being unable to speak certain vowels and consonants correctly.
  • Sleep Apnea – if your uvula is particularly long or elongated it can cause there to be excessive vibrations which can lead to snoring and heavy breathing during sleep, or it could block your airways during sleep, causing episodes of apnea, whereby you cannot breathe. If sleep apnea is caused by an elongated uvula, a procedure can be performed which is known as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, or UPPP for short. Unfortunately UPPP is only 40-60% effective in treating sleep apnea, and because it is a painful surgery that does require a fair bit of recovery, many doctors will try you on another treatment such as CPAP first before putting you through surgery.
  • Nasal Regurgitation – usually, when you swallow food, the uvula and the soft palate come together to close off the gap to your nasal cavity, but when the uvula and the soft palate do not come together in this way, food and drink can move into the nasal passageways, causing nasal regurgitation.
  • Swollen Uvulayour uvula can become swollen for a number of reasons, including dehydration, infection and the common cold. If you are dehydrated, your uvula is forced to soak up as much saliva as it can to ward off the dehydration, and so it becomes swollen. This swelling can make it difficult for you to eat and to speak and could cause mild sleep apnea. Treat a swollen uvula by drinking plenty of water to get your hydration levels back up to where they should be. If the uvula is swollen due to infection, gargle with water and a little salt to kill off the infection and soothe any inflammation.

For more information on the uvula and the functions of the uvula, speak to your doctor.