Sleep apnea is a disorder that involves airway blockage or inactivation, which prompts snoring and other symptoms like choking or gasping. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of this disorder, occurs when throat muscles relax and cause the structures they support (the soft palate, uvula, tonsils, and the back of the tongue) to collapse toward your airway. When these supported structures are enlarged or swollen, airway blockage is even more likely. If swelling continues and becomes chronic, you are more likely to develop the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.
As the uvula, tonsils, or tongue increases in size, your airway narrows as you inhale, preventing you from breathing effectively during sleep. The excessive length of a swollen uvula, for example, narrows the airway and acts a noisy, fluttering valve during relaxed nighttime breathing. This fluttering action stimulates vibrations to create snoring during sleep.
The back of the tongue is a particularly major contributor to obstructive sleep apnea, as tongue enlargement is associated with approximately 60% of all sleep apnea patients. In addition, enlarged tonsils can also lead to snoring and other sleep apnea symptoms by creating additional airway blockage during sleep. Enlargement may occur as the result of infection or in healthy children with developing throats and airways.
Sleeping on your back can worsen the effects of enlarged tonsils, uvula, or tongue. As you lie on your back, gravity pulls your tongue and other soft tissues toward the back of your throat, making airway obstruction much more likely. To avoid this obstruction, try sleeping on your side instead of on your back. If you are experience persistent enlargement of your uvula, tongue, or tonsils, you should see your doctor or an otolaryngologist to determine the best treatments for you. He or she may suggest an oral device to wear during sleep or may recommend surgical treatment to reduce obstructive tissue in your mouth and throat.