Friday Weird Science: Snoring Problem? Have you considered a didgeridoo?

Jun 25 2010 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Thanks again to NCBI ROFL, who finds these hilarious things and posts their abstracts for all the world to see, and for Sci to giggle over and then run around trying to find hilarious pictures of didgeridoos.
So, let's talk about your snoring problem.

And then let's talk about your musical stylings on the didgeridoo. Puhan, et al. "Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome: randomised controlled trial" British Medical Journal, 2006.
And to get an idea of what this whole study must have sounded like:

(Dang, this guy is really good...)

First off, let's talk about snoring. In this case, we're not referring specifically to SNORING, but snoring as a symptom of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a syndrome in which you have pauses in your breathing during sleep, causing you to miss one or more breaths. Symptoms of this include heavy snoring, as well as things like hypoxia, and if it gets bad enough, you can actually die. However, most people just suffer from pauses in breathing, while their partners suffer from lack of sleep (due to the constant snoring and possibly due to poking their partner until they breathe again). The patients with sleep apnea suffer from lack of sleep as well, they often have trouble falling asleep, and also suffer from a lot of daytime sleepiness due to the constant interruptions they get during the night.
A lot of the problems which cause snoring and other problems with sleep apnea are associated with temporary airway collapse. Basically, the airway is not strong enough to stay open, and when it collapses, obviously air can't get through. This is also why sleep apnea often affects people who are overweight, as the increased weight creates increased soft tissue around the airway, making it more likely to collapse.
For people who suffer severe hypoxia during sleep (which means your blood oxygen levels get low) doctors often prescribe a CPAP. which is a machine used to create positive pressure, and help the airway to stay open. But a lot of people are borderline and don't necessarily need a CPAP. What to do with these people?
Well, this group decided to have them try the didgeridoo.
Why the didgeridoo, you ask? Well, the didgeridoo requires a lot of training in specific types of breathing (known as circular breathing) which may help to strengthen the muscles and stiffen the airway. So the idea was that if you train people to play the didgeridoo...maybe it'll help.
And so they did. They gave a bunch of people didgeridoos and free lessons, and asked them to practice for at least 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
And what do you know, it WORKED! The patients who were instructed in circular breathing (as opposed to those who did nothing) and how to play the didgeridoo got improved sleep (and so, by the way, did their partners) and suffered significantly less from daytime sleepiness. They also showed less disturbance in sleep. Sounds pretty good!
The authors hypothesize that the didgeridoo lessons helped to train the muscles of the upper airway, making them stronger and thus less likely to collapse at night. But of course, it's a bit more invasive to test upper airway strength than it is to give a sleep test, so more studies are going to have to be done on what exactly is going on.
And so, you might say, that's cool, but what if you don't want to play the didgeridoo? Well, Sci hypothesizes that the changes these scientists saw with the didgeridoo were the result of the training the patients received in learning and practicing circular breathing. This is a technique that is used to create a single, unbroken tone, and you do it by breathing IN through the nose and OUT though the mouth at the same time. Go on, try it. I'll wait.
Hard, huh? Well, ok, Sci can't do it. Apparently the technique involved is like drinking from a water fountain. Maybe Sci fails at water fountains, too.
But many musicians CAN, and not all of those musicians play the didgeridoo. Some play other instruments, including the flute, the saxophone, the trumpet, the chanter part of bagpipes, and even the harmonica. Apparently there's one guy who can hold a tone like this for NINETY MINUTES. In fact, if an instrument is not your thing, certain types of chanting and tone holding in singing can also use this technique.
Sci would like to see more studies done to see if the didgeridoo is necessary, or if just training in circular breathing is enough to help. And she wants to see what's exactly causing this phenomenon. But in the meantime, if your partner snores, and you're at your wit's end, maybe they need a didgeridoo for their birthday. It probably couldn't hurt!
Puhan, M. (2006). Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome: randomised controlled trial BMJ, 332 (7536), 266-270 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.38705.470590.55

11 responses so far

  • Snarkyxanf says:

    Or, for the cheap, plastic, generic version, a vuvuzela!

  • Phillip IV says:

    But in the meantime, if your partner snores, and you're at your wit's end, maybe they need a didgeridoo for their birthday. It probably couldn't hurt!
    That's a rather speculative statement. In my experience playing the didgeridoo most always ends up with somebody getting hurt.

  • Lotharloo says:

    How the hell is it possible to breath in through the nose and out through the mouth at the same time???? My diaphragm doesn't work that way.

  • Lissamphibia says:

    You store some air in your cheeks and work on releasing it in a controlled stream (using your cheek muscles, not your diaphragm) while breathing in through your nose to refill your lungs. Switching back and forth, while maintaining a consistent flow of air, is the tricky part! I can't quite do it consistently while playing a didgeridoo, but there are lots of sites online with instructions, like:
    and there are many YouTube videos as well.

  • I wonder if, without the didgeridoo (or some instrument) it may be hard to discern whether or not you're doing the circular breathing thing right. The sound of the instrument provides important auditory feedback, maybe.

  • Mel says:

    If you lack a didgeridoo, you can practice circular breathing using a straw and a glass of water. Blow bubbles in the water, then see if you can breathe through your nose without stopping the bubbles.

  • Tybo says:

    So is there something about didgeridoos in particular that promotes circular breathing more than European/orchestral wind instruments? I must admit, I've played trombone for quite a while and still never gotten the circular breathing thing down by any means; I just nab a quick inhale whenever I can still.

  • Carla says:

    I read a study a few years ago about apnea improvement from singing. The reasoning was that singing strengthened the throat muscles. Since I had an infant son who had apnea with bradycardia/hypoxia I made sure he sang all the time as a toddler, he still does, and has no apnea symptoms. My husband won't try to sing at all to help his apnea. He swears he breathes fine at night. I should record him.
    I'm seriously considering separate bedrooms so at least one of us sleeps. I have no problem with that "one" being me.

  • sleepscientist says:

    Hmmm your description of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) needs a bit of work...
    People love talking about this study. In particular, patients desperate for alternatives to CPAP and the media in general. Unfortunately, the researchers did not use a strong measure of apnoea and only studied those with moderate OSA. Sure, they showed a statistically significant improvement in apnoea index and subjective sleepiness, but a clinicially significant one? I think not.
    It's an interesting idea but a naive one in view of the myriad of known factors leading to upper airway closure.