Learning to Play the Didgeridoo May Treat Sleep Apnea

Circular Breathing May Strengthen Upper Airway

Man blows on the didgeridoo. Ian Waldie / Getty Images

Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes pausing during breathing while the afflicted person is asleep. This is often due to the upper airway collapsing, and it can lead to major medical problems. It is most often treated by Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP, but this is not always tolerated. In fact, compliance is a major hurdle in treatment that sometimes cannot be overcome. One proposed alternative to CPAP is learning to play an aboriginal instrument called the didgeridoo.

The Didgeri-What?

The didgeridoo is a wind instrument that is common among the indigenous people of northern Australia. It is a cylindrical, wooden instrument that may be from 3 to 10 feet in length. It has been played for more than 1500 years and is traditionally made from eucalyptus or bamboo with a mouthpiece of beeswax. More modern versions of the didgeridoo can be made from PVC pipe and duct tape, and it is possible to make your own.

Just Keep Breathing

The didgeridoo is played with a special breathing technique called circular breathing. This involves breathing in through the nose while expelling air out of the mouth using the tongue and cheeks. Vibrating lips will produce a continuous drone that a skilled player can sustain for as long as desired, with the supply of air constantly replenished.

Strengthen Your Windpipe

In a Swiss study published in the British Medical Journal, it was found that didgeridoo playing is an effective alternative treatment for moderate obstructive sleep apnea. It was hypothesized that the circular breathing technique may improve muscular tone of the upper airway and reduce the collapsibility that is common in sleep apnea. Twenty-five patients were enrolled in the study, given lessons, and practiced daily at home for four months.

What Are the Outcomes?

The enrolled study subjects practiced approximately 25 minutes a day, 6 days per week. Compared with a control group, daytime sleepiness and the apnea-hyopnea index (or the number of airway collapses per hour) improved significantly. Their partners also reported less sleep disturbance. There was not a measurable effect on the quality of sleep, however.

An Effective Alternative?

Therefore, this study demonstrates that regular didgeridoo playing is an effective adjunctive treatment in people with moderate obstructive sleep apnea, improving some measures of the disease. It does seem that some residual mild sleep apnea still persists, however. For less than $10 worth of materials, and a little bit of practice to learn the technique of circular breathing, this might be a possible alternative for those who cannot tolerate their CPAP machines.

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