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Posted by on Mar 27, 2017 in Tell Me Why |

What Is the Uvula?

What Is the Uvula?

The uvula is a small mass of muscle covered by mucous membrane that hangs down from the middle of the soft palate at the back of the mouth. The soft palate is a movable fold of tissue and, with the hard palate, forms the roof of the mouth.

The palatine uvula, usually referred to as simply the uvula, is composed of connective tissue containing a number of racemose glands, and some muscular fibers (musculus uvulae). It also contains a large number of serous glands that produce a lot of thin saliva.

During swallowing, the soft palate and the uvula move together to close off the nasopharynx, and prevent food from entering the nasal cavity. It has also been proposed that the large amount of thin saliva produced by the uvula serves to keep the throat well lubricated.

uvula, accessory speech organ

It has a function in speech as well. In many languages, the uvula is used to articulate a range of consonant sounds, known as uvular consonants. The voiced uvular trill, written [ʀ] in the International Phonetic Alphabet, is one example; it is used in French, Arabic and Hebrew, among other languages. Due to the large amount of saliva produced from glands in the uvula that are not present in other mammals it has been suggested that the uvula is an accessory speech organ.

Your uvula is one of the weirdest features on your body. Not only does it look strange hanging there in the back of your throat, scientists continue to puzzle over exactly what it does and why it’s there in the first place.

Over the years, many scientists have studied the uvula. They’ve also come up with many interesting theories about its history and purpose. Here are a few of the things scientists have hypothesized about the uvula over time:

  • that it helped to guide the flow of food and water down the throat
  • that it induces the gag reflex
  • that it causes chronic coughing
  • that it causes health problems, like sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and sleep apnea, as well as snoring

Although these several theories haven’t totally panned out over the years, scientists continue to research the uvula, many out of a sense of pure curiosity. Some recent studies have revealed further information about the uvula and its function by studying people who don’t have uvulas.

Some doctors still treat patients with sleep apnea by removing the uvula in a process known as an uvulopalatopharyngoplasty. These patients without uvulas were then studied, and researchers learned that the uvula is apparently really good at excreting a lot of saliva in a short amount of time.

Further research of the uvula and its saliva-producing capabilities has led some scientists to believe that the uvula’s primary purpose is an accessory to speech. If you’ve ever had trouble speaking when your mouth was dry, you know that proper lubrication is required for complex human speech.

Many scientists now believe that the uvula provides that lubrication in the form of saliva, thereby helping the overall process of human speech. For now, that’s all we know about the uvula. Perhaps future scientists will uncover even more interesting information about the uvula!

The word uvula comes from the Latin word “uva” or grape and the word describes its shape very well. Occasionally, if the throat is infected or relaxed, the uvula may become elongated, but it is never cut, since it recovers its proper size as the condition of the throat improves.

In certain animals, to which the sense of smell is very important indeed, the uvula is joined to the epiglottis, a leaf-like piece of cartilage which stands upright between the tongue and the entrance to the larynx. This means that the animal is forced always to breathe through its nose.

In man there is a gap between the two and consequently food may sometimes accidentally pass into the larynx and windpipe, causing great discomfort. Choking like this can even cause death.

Content for this question contributed by Eric Brenneman, resident of Red Lion, York County, Pennsylvania, USA