Uvula Function

Uvula Function

Uvula is the fleshy mass of tissue that dangles from the posterior of the soft palate. When we swallow solid food or fluids, uvula and the soft palate move upwards to close off the nasopharynx, thereby preventing food from entering the nasal cavity. The following write-up provides information on the functions of the uvula.
The palate, which is the roof of the mouth, consists of the hard palate and the soft palate. Palatine uvula, which is commonly referred to as uvula, is a small, conical projection that hangs down from the soft palate, at the back of the throat. It is made of connective tissue containing racemose glands and muscle fibers. The soft palate, which is medically referred to as velum, is the soft portion of the roof of the mouth. Musculus uvulae is a muscle of the soft palate that originates from the posterior nasal spine, and articulates with the uvula. This muscle helps to elevate and retract the uvula.

When it comes to uvula function, you will come across contradictory theories or observations. While uvula and soft palate are believed to play a role in the articulation of speech, the removal of uvula is a ritualistic practice that is still followed in certain parts of Africa. In some cultures, the removal of uvula is considered to provide therapeutic benefits.

Functions of Uvula

Uvula plays a vital role in the articulation of speech and deglutition, which refers to the process of swallowing. It also secretes large amounts of thin saliva that contains serous and mucous components, thereby lubricating the back of the throat. Some singers claim that the uvula helps them produce vibrato, which is the pulsating effect in singing that is produced by making variations in the pitch.

Articulation of Speech
All sounds of speech are produced when the configuration of the vocal tract modifies the airstream. For instance, the back of the tongue must come in contact with the soft palate for producing sounds like K and G. The uvula and palate work together for creating guttural sounds. Arabic, German, French, Hebrew, Ubykh, and Hmong are some of the languages wherein uvular consonants are used. These are sounds that are articulated at the back of the tongue.

Swallowing
Uvula and soft palate work in tandem to prevent food from entering the nasal cavity during the act of swallowing. Levator veli palatini and tensor veli palatini are muscles that lift the soft palate and uvula, thereby sealing off the passageway to the nasopharynx. This prevents food or fluids from entering the nasal cavity. While swallowing, the flap of cartilage called epiglottis covers the glottis, thereby preventing food or fluids from entering the windpipe.

Gag reflex or the instinctive reaction of retching or vomiting can be produced by touching the uvula or the soft palate. This reflex can prove to be an alternative to the use of emetics for inducing vomiting.

Conditions Associated with Uvula

Since uvula is involved in the articulation of speech, problems can arise if uvula function is affected. Here are some of the medical conditions that are associated with the uvula.

Velopharyngeal Insufficiency
The term 'velopharyngeal closure' refers to the closure of the nasal airways that involves contraction of the back walls of the oral cavity and the elevation of the soft palate. Velopharyngeal closure is essential for the production of oral pressure consonants. This closure mechanism could get adversely affected due to anatomical or structural defects such as short soft palate, cleft palate, or submucous cleft palate. If the uvula and the soft palate don't close properly against the back of the throat, extra air escapes into the nasal cavity, thereby causing nasal speech. Under such circumstances, the affected individual may not be able to pronounce certain consonants correctly.

Nasal Regurgitation
When you swallow food, levator and tensor veli palatini muscles elevate the uvula and soft palate to close the nasopharynx. This prevents the entry of food into the nasal cavity. If this closure mechanism doesn't work, food can enter the nasal cavity. Regurgitation of food through the nose is likely to occur in people affected by severe velopharyngeal insufficiency.

Uvula Infection
Uvulitis, which refers to the inflammation of uvula, could occur due to infections caused by bacteria, viruses, etc. Uvulitis is characterized by swelling of the mucous membrane around the uvula, which in turn can cause the uvula to become three to five times its normal size. Swollen uvula could also cause a sensation of choking on touching the throat or tongue.

Snoring
It is believed that irregular airflow due to an elongated uvula could cause the tissues in the throat to vibrate, which in turn may give rise to loud snoring or heavy breathing during sleep. The airway could also become blocked when the muscles of the throat or the tongue become relaxed, and the soft palate and tongue collapse on the back wall of the upper airway. This may prevent air from entering the lungs, thereby causing obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that is characterized by disruption in the sleep due to partial or complete stoppage of airflow owing to the blockage of the airway. Such episodes may last for a few seconds to minutes.

On a concluding note, the functions of uvula include the creation of guttural sounds, and closing off the nasopharynx for preventing food from entering the nasal cavity while swallowing. However, uvula works in conjunction with the soft palate to perform the aforementioned functions. Though removal of uvula is not recommended in case of infections, uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (surgical removal of uvula and tissues in throat) may be suggested in case of people affected by loud snoring or obstructive sleep apnea.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.