Can You Play Sleep Apnea Away? Studies Hint Didgeridoos May Help

Playing the didgeridoo may be just as beneficial for your health as it is fun to play. A number of medical studies are recommending that playing wind instruments can help people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the most common type of sleep apnea characterized by repetitive pauses in breathing, and some cases of snoring. The first published article on the possible effect of playing a wind instrument on OSA was an investigation of playing the didgeridoo, a drone instrument traditional among Australian aborigines. Results of the study, conducted in Switzerland by Milo A. Puhan and others, were published online by the British Medical Journal in December 2005. The studies that found a positive correlation between marked improvement in sleep and daytime alertness suggest that playing the didgeridoo strengthens and tones the tissues of the throat and also provides good exercise for the respiratory system.

Didgeridoo and sleep apnea
The Beatles play their didgeridoos for continued sleep health.

The physiological benefit of didgeridoo playing is believed to stem from an action called circular breathing, in which the player inhales through the nose while maintaining an uninterrupted outflow into the instrument through the mouth, using the cheeks as bellows. This produces a continuous note sustained far longer than would be possible with a single breath. At the conclusion study, the investigators found that the didgeridoo players’ apnea-hypopnea index had dropped from an average of 21 to 11.6. The didgeridoo players also showed a marked improvement in their level of daytime sleepiness.

The USA National Institutes of Health followed by commenting: “Regular playing of a didgeridoo reduces sleep apnea and snoring in people with moderate obstructive sleep apnea syndrome and also improves the sleep quality of partners. Severity of disease, expressed by the apnea-hypopnoea index, is also substantially reduced after four months of didgeridoo playing.”

Dr. Vicki Thon, a board member of the American Sleep Apnea Association, who monitors research on alternative treatments of OSA, cautioned that research conducted on the correlation between wind instrument playing and sleep apnea improvement is preliminary. She notes that the studies were conducted with a small number of participants and that “No one should discontinue CPAP on the basis of these studies.” Having said this, she adds, “On the other hand, they may point to promising therapies on the horizon.”

While it is not yet considered a medical standard that playing such instruments as the didgeridoo will, in fact, improve one’s sleep apnea, there is one thing researchers, physicians, and patients alike can all agree on: The sound of the didgeridoo is sweeter than the sound of snores. So pick up a wind instrument, and give it a play!*

For more information on sleep apnea and alternative treatments, call Chicago ENT and Chicago Sleep Center at (773) 296-5500.

*The following links provided data for the above blog post: