In humans and other mammals, the soft palate is the soft tissue which makes up the back of the roof of the mouth. Connected to the bony hard palate at the front of the mouth, the soft palate gets its name because it doesn't contain any bone. It is also known as the velum or muscular palate. Five different muscles connect the soft palate to the hard palate and other structures in the mouth.
The soft palate is involved in a number of functions. These include swallowing, breathing, speech and sneezing. Since the soft palate is movable and located just below the nasal passage, it closes off the nasal passages during swallowing. When a person sneezes, the soft palate helps protect the nasal passage by diverting mucous into the mouth. The uvula, which produces saliva and affects speech, hangs from the back of the soft palate. Touching the uvula or soft palate typically triggers a gag reflex, which helps prevent choking.
It is the vibration of the soft palate and uvula that causes the sound known as snoring. Snoring may exist alone or in combination with obstructive sleep apnea, in which the patient stops breathing repeatedly during the night. Sleep apnea can increase the risk of serious medical conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease. When snoring is loud enough to disturb the patient and/or the bed partner, it can disrupt sleep for both – chronic sleep deprivation has many negative effects such as irritability and daytime sleepiness, and can increase the risk of driving accidents.
Treatment is usually directed toward stiffening the soft palate by causing scar tissue to form, as the scar tissue is less flexible and reduces movement of the soft palate during sleep. Radio frequency energy and a minor in-office surgery called the pillar procedure are the most common treatments. Either procedure can result in decreased snoring.
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