Didgeridoo for Sleep Apnea: First Clinical Study

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obstructive sleep apnea didgeridoo
In obstructive sleep apnea air is obstructed where the base of tongue meets the soft palate during sleep. Image by Habib M’henni

“I’ve had breathing problems during sleep for at least a year and a half, maybe much longer: snoring, gasping for breath when I was sleeping. At best it was a loud snore. I have now been playing didgeridoo for sleep apnea for about two months and I’ve been practicing four or five times a week for about thirty minutes a day. This past weekend I was at my friend’s house and he said that throughout the night my breathing was just beautiful. He was so thrilled to hear such a difference, just quiet constant breathing. I’m very proud of that. It’s a big change.”
– Paul Auerbach, educator

Is There Evidence That Didgeridoo For Sleep Apnea Can Help People?

didgeridoo-sleep-apnea-participant
A participant playing didgeridoo in the sleep apnea study

In 2005 The British Medical Journal reported on a study conducted at the University of Zurich in which researchers hypothesized that regular didgeridoo playing could be an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. The sleeping disorder is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep, often leading to daytime restlessness. Participants, mostly men aged around 50 and experiencing high amounts of daytime sleepiness, were to learn to play the didgeridoo by taking periodic lessons and practicing at least 20 minutes per day, 5 days a week for four months. All participants used identical acrylic didgeridoos (as seen in the first photo). Participants were given four lessons as follows (quoted directly from the study):

1. participants learned the lip technique to produce and hold the keynote for 20-30 seconds

2. the instructor explained the concept and technique of circular breathing. Circular breathing is a technique that enables the wind instrumentalist to maintain a sound for long periods of time by inhaling through the nosewhile maintaining airflow through the instrument, using the cheeks as bellows

3. the didgeridoo instructor taught the participants his technique to further optimize the complex interaction between the lips, the vocal tract, and circular breathing so that the vibrations in the upper airway are more readily transmitted to the lower airways

4. the instructor and the participants repeated the basics of didgeridoo playingand made corrections when necessary

The Results:

Participants were tested at the beginning and end of the study for four different quality-of-sleep and daytime sleepiness indicators and were then compared to a control group that was not allowed to play the didgeridoo. For each indicator, the group that practiced the didgeridoo made significant improvements compared to the group that did not.

The most significant indicator is the Epworth scale, a measurement of daytime sleepiness (the higher you are on the scale, the more daytime sleepiness you experience). The figure here shows that those who practiced the didgeridoo saw their level of daytime sleepiness decrease, while those in the control group saw various changes, including testing better, the same and far worse.

didgeridoo-sleep-apnea-graph
Results from participants in the didgeridoo sleep apnea study, plotted on the Epworth Scale (a self-reporting metric).

The didgeridoo for sleep apnea study was hailed as a success but only through continued research will we know the true effects of playing the didgeridoo to treat sleep apnea. It is unclear the level to which the participants mastered circular breathing, a technique which often challenges newer didge players. Enhanced results could potentially be found in longer experiment periods (greater than four months) and more in-depth and frequent didge lessons. For information on learning to play the didgeridoo, check out our current course offerings.

(Images taken from the British Medical Journal report)

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