What Does the Uvula Do?
For many, the first function of the uvula might be to gross people out when they tell them to google image search it. It is a dangly little piece of tissue and glands which almost looks like a separate organism of its own. While most of us have one from birth, it is such a common place sight when checking your throat or brushing teeth that we may have neglected to think about what the uvula does. This oneHOWTO article delves into the facts and answers what does the uvula do? We'll discuss the normal function of the uvula as well as showing what might happen if there is a uvula infection. Our uvulas may seem a little odd, but they are useful. Keeping them healthy will help with sleep, speech and other important factors in maintaining overall health.
Normal functions of the uvula
There have been many hypotheses over the function of the uvula. So much so that many studies have been carried out (and some ongoing) as to this function and hereditary purpose of the uvula. One early theory linked it to a previous evolutionary trait whereby it helped us drink from streams and prevent choking while we tipped our head back. The study (The Riddle of the Uvula, Finklestein et al: 1992) found that this was not the case as only 2 baboons could be found to have a similar, yet smaller version of a uvula.
What the study did confirm was that the uvula does contain a number of racemose glands which secrete a type of thin saliva. This is different to the thicker kind secreted by salivary glands at the cheeks and front of the mouth. This was something picked up on later by a study which proposed that the uvula works something like a turkey baster, keeping the throat moist and lubricated (Why do we Have a Uvula?, Back et al: 2004).
Although Finkelstien et al did not come up with a concrete purpose for the uvula, they did assert that they may be a good indicator of our evolutionary difference from other mammals. One thing which we have and many other animals do not, is a gag reflex. This is when something presses us at the back of the throat and we gag as a response. The uvula is not the only part of the mouth and throat which causes this reflex, but it is part of the response sent to the brain. The result sometimes includes production of more saliva. The purpose of the gag reflex is to stop something too large from entering the throat and provide a choking hazard. The uvula helps stop us choking by sending a message to the brain that there is something which needs to be expelled.
Uvula and speech
While you do not need a uvula (scientifically known as the palatine uvula) to talk, there are languages which do require it to make certain consonant sounds. They even have their own name; uvular consonants. Once such sound is known as the "voiced uvular trill". This sound is found in certain languages which require the repeated "R" sound, often known as rolling your r's. This can be found in Hebrew, Arabic and French most commonly, but does exist in other languages. Many particular accents to regions within countries will make this sound. It means that the sound comes from the uvular area in the back of the throat.
As we know from some studies, the uvula is almost unique to humans. As human speech as we know it is also unique, this would support the theory that the uvula is used to help us talk. Birds which imitate human speech do so by passing air over their trachea. They do not have a uvula, but can sometimes make similar sounds.
Our uvula can also prohibit us from making certain speech sounds. When the uvula is unable to press against the back of the throat, it can cause "hyper-nasal" speech. This is when too much air passes through the nose and makes us talk like Professor Frink from The Simpsons. While the uvula can make us say uvular consonants, this hyper-nasal speech prohibits us from making certain consonant sounds like "b" and "m". Think of whenever you have a cold and your words do not form properly. This does not mean that you cannot speak without a uvula.
The palatine uvula is an assistant to speech, but the majority of our voice comes from our vocal chords. This provides the implication, not the assertion, that there is more than one function of the uvula. Or it at least suggests it can aid in other mouth and throat related functions.
Uvula and sleeping
While the palatine uvula might be great for Shakespearean acting or ordering in a Parisian brasserie, this ability to make certain sounds might not always be useful. Or pleasant. Sleep apnea is shallow breathing or pausing in breathing during sleep. This often is accompanied by snoring. The uvula can affect snoring, especially if it is in any way constricting the passage of air flow through the throat.
If we have an enlarged uvula, either naturally or through infection, then it can cause snoring. The rolling "R" sounds can be loud and uncomfortable, especially for anyone you may be sharing a bed or room with. However, if it is chronic, sleep apnea can increase health risk factors including heart attack or asphyxiation. If this is the case, it is recommended that an uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (that's the real tongue twister) be carried out. This is when some or more of the palatine uvula is surgically removed. The science behind why this is effective is not yet 100%, but it does show improvement in many cases.
An original theory of what the uvula does concerns immunology. This is the study of immune systems of organic beings and it has to do with how we get and deal with infections, diseases and the like. One study (Human Uvula: characterization of Resident Leukocytes and Local Cytokine Production, Olofsson et al: 2000) investigated the function the uvula has on our immune response system. They looked at all the cells present in the uvula and found that some of them were mucosal tolerant. This means they were thought to be able to prevent certain antigens and microbial pathogens which came through the air. In this way, it is a barrier. Like fly paper catching flies, the uvula hangs down and supposedly absorbs certain disease causing microbes.
The uvula itself, however, can get infected. If it does, it results in something called uvulitis. This is when the mucous membrane of the uvula swells. This is something most people will have experienced as it often happens when we get the common cold. Unfortunately, it can also happen when we have infections which are a little more serious. It can also stem from smoking too much, not drinking enough water or many other reasons. The result is that the uvula touches the back of the throat which, as it is linked to our gag reflex, can be uncomfortable.
A uvula touching the back of the throat is one of the main reasons for a tickly cough as this sensation invokes one. It is often seen if you get certain inflammations like mononucleosis (also known as glandular fever) or tonsillitis. However, the majority of the times it is highly treatable if a one off. If a swollen uvula is a chronic issue, it often requires some lifestyle changes.
Most of us have one part of the uvula which hangs down like a bunch of grapes. This is not our observation, but that of whoever first named it. In Latin, uvula literally means "little grape". Some of us, however, might notice something a little abnormal. A bifid or bifurcated uvula is one which is divided into two parts. You might have seen something similar in people who have their tongue bifurcated either from birth, an accident or for cosmetic reasons. A bifurcated uvula stems from the formation of the palate.
At birth the palate grows from both sides, eventually meeting in the middle. Some people have believed that the uvula itself is merely a remnant from palate development with no other purpose than that. This would explain the similar reason for a raphe, the visible line in humans where two parts have fused together (if you really try, you can think of at least one of these). However, this would not necessarily explain the other functions previously mentioned here. For some people, the uvula is split in two. This is what bifurcated ("bi-" meaning two) literally means. They have less muscle in them than single uvulas and because of this may have less ability to fight infection.
With bifid uvulas there is more of a chance of food entering the nasal cavity. This is because the uvula works to close off the nasopharynx which in turn stops solids and liquids from entering the nose through the nasal cavity. A bifid uvula often allows foreign bodies to enter due to the gap between its two parts. This is in addition to the fact they are often smaller. People with cleft palates often have them because there was a problem when the palate was forming. They will often have a split uvula (or sometimes none at all if severe). The two things are related, but there are surgeries which can improve quality of life drastically.
Other variations of the uvula are not something caused by nature or hereditary reasons. Body modification can take many forms, from tattoos to scarification. A uvula piercing is a rare one where a closed ring is pierced through the uvula and is only visible when the mouth is opened. This is a risky piercing to get for a few reasons. Firstly, it can make the uvula hang down the back of the throat. This can be irritating as it might catch the back of the throat causing a tickly cough. However, it can also be life threatening as it can potentially choke you in your sleep. Many piercings grow out naturally or are rejected by the tissue. If this happens with a uvula piercing, then it can fall down the throat and need to be surgically removed.
Some tribal cultures in Africa remove some or all of the uvula as part of a ritual or even as a means for healing. This could be due to seeing infected uvulas and thinking extraction is the best course of action. Removing part of the uvula in this way is not thought to cause great effect, but it may have some of the problems listed here in terms of opening up the nasal passageway.
This article is merely informative, oneHOWTO does not have the authority to prescribe any medical treatments or create a diagnosis. We invite you to visit your doctor if you have any type of condition or pain.
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