October 06, 2014
The uvula is a finger like structure that extends from the middle of the soft palate at the back of the mouth. It consists of connective and glandular tissue as well as muscle fibers. This structure does not exist in other mammals and is found only in human beings. It can be seen on opening the mouth wide.
Role of the palatine uvula
It has several functions though earlier there was much doubt about its utility. These include:
- Its muscle or the musculus uvulae, closes the nasopharynx along with the soft palate while swallowing food. This ensures that food does not go up the nasal cavity.
- It has a role in speech and aids in forming some consonants. However, it is used more in Arabic, Hebrew, French and German with no role in English. Guttural sounds and vibrations are produced with the help of this tissue along with the soft palate.
- It also secretes fluid whenever needed in quantities which keeps the throat area and the back of the tongue moist.
- It is also said to assist in draining nasal secretions and mucus.
- The gag reflex is induced on touching the uvula or the soft palate and can cause vomiting.
Diseases related to the uvula
- In some cases the uvula fails to push back the soft palate against the throat properly which causes nasal regurgitation wherein food goes up the nasal cavity. Known as velopharyngeal insufficiency (VPI), it is also the cause for nasal speech in some people.
- If the uvula is unusually long, it can be a contributing factor for snoring as well as sleep apnea. This sometimes necessitates part or complete removal of the uvula. This procedure is known as the uvulectomy or uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPI/UP3). However, this may not always be successful as there may be a reversal after sometime, especially in the morbidly obese. Laser-assisted uvulopalatoplasty (LAUP) is also carried out as an outpatient procedure which again has limited success.
- A common problem with the uvula is inflammation and swelling. Though not life threatening, this can cause difficulties like choking or gagging while eating. This also makes breathing and talking uncomfortable. The possible reasons for inflammation causing swollen uvula are infection (viral or bacterial), allergies, trauma and sometimes dehydration.
- A mouth ulcer may sometimes form on the uvula which can also be a cause for swelling and pain.
Normally infections related to the uvula are treated by an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.
Variation in shape
Sometimes the uvula may be differently formed. It may either be too long, short or may have a cleft. This bifurcation is considered to be the mildest form of clefting in newborns and hampers normal functioning of the uvula. Bifid uvula can lead to infections of the middle ear, difficulty in swallowing as well as speech problems. Children with cleft palate also have a bifid uvula.
A cleft uvula and VPI is sometimes corrected through surgery by cleft palate experts. In some rare cases, it may be corrected with a special mouth appliance. This is made and fitted by a prosthodontist (dental specialist). It is not necessary that a bifid uvula be treated unless it is causing noticeable problems.