Geek Trivia

Learning To Play Which Of These Instruments Helps With Sleep Apnea?

French Horn
What Did Users Of The First Automatic Teller Machine Access The Machine With?

Answer: Didgeridoo

Sleep apnea is a common but serious condition in which the patient’s breathing is shallow or completely disrupted during their sleep. While there are various forms, the most common is obstructive sleep apnea where the airway is partially or fully blocked, briefly, when the muscles of the throat relax too much and the soft tissue closes the patient’s airway.

While there are many established methods of treatment such as weight loss in the presence of patient obesity and the use of CPAP machines (a breathing apparatus that creates positive pressure in the throat to prevent soft tissue collapse), there’s a rather novel treatment that has established clinical efficacy: playing the didgeridoo.

The didgeridoo is a wind instrument created by the Aboriginal tribal peoples indigenous to northern Australia. The instrument is a long and hollow wooden cylinder that is played by placing the mouth within the opening, forming a seal against the inner diameter of the cylinder, and using controlled breathing to send out an amplified droning sound. Successfully playing the instrument requires excellent breath control and development of the muscles supporting the airway. A 2005 study found that patients suffering from snoring and sleep apnea had improved sleep quality and decreased symptoms when trained to play the didgeridoo.

Curiously, a later study examined rates of sleep apnea among orchestral members based on the premise that other breath-driven instruments would also provide protective benefits, but the researchers found very few actually did. Outside of instruments known as “double reed” wind instruments, such as the oboe and the bassoon, there were no differences in the sleep disorder among the different musicians. It’s theorized that the effort required to play instruments with such high resistance conditions the muscles in the throat much like playing the didgeridoo.

Despite the similarities, however, the didgeridoo remains the recommended instrument to take up simply because it requires significantly less training to satisfactorily play than, say, a bassoon.

Image by Dan McGarry/Imagicity.