The study included 31 adults with moderate obstructive sleep apnea.
Speech pathologists taught 16 of the patients to do tongue and facial exercises for half an hour daily. Those exercises included brushing the tongue with a toothbrush, putting the tip of the tongue on the soft palate and sliding the tongue backward, pronouncing vowels quickly or continuously, and keeping the tongue in a certain position when eating.
For comparison, the other 15 patients didn't learn any tongue or facial exercises. They were simply supervised as they sat for half an hour per day, practicing deep breathing through the nose.
Three months later, the patients in the tongue/facial exercise group had reduced their obstructive sleep apnea severity by 39%. Those patients also reported that they were snoring less, sleeping better, and were less sleepy during the daytime than they had been before learning the exercises. And, although their BMI (body mass index) hadn't changed, their neck circumference was thinner than it had been at the study's start.
In contrast, the comparison group showed no such improvements.
Larger studies are needed to confirm the results and to learn which exercises were most important, but the basic idea is to strengthen the muscles around the airway so it's less likely to collapse during sleep, say the researchers, who included Katia Guimaraes of the sleep laboratory at Brazil's University of Sao Paolo Medical School.
The study appears in the May 15 edition of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Some of the exercises that the patients performed may have been more helpful than others, according to an editorial published with the study.
Still, "there seems to be reasonable logic to targeting tongue strength as a potential mechanism for remodeling the upper airway," writes editorialist Catriona Steele, PhD, of Canada's Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and University of Toronto.