Musical therapy for sounder sleeping

Among the most distinctive sounds of Australian aboriginal music are the low drones of didgeridoos—long instruments made from termite-hollowed tree limbs. Alex Suarez, a Swiss didgeridoo instructor, noticed that since taking up the instrument, he and his students experienced less daytime sleepiness and nighttime snoring. A study by Suarez and Swiss sleep scientists now concludes that playing such wind instruments may be therapeutic to individuals plagued by sleep problems.

In people with obstructive sleep apnea, breathing repeatedly stops for 10 or more seconds throughout the night. This can foster snoring, reduce sleep quality, and double the risk of stroke or premature death (SN: 11/26/05, p. 349: Available to subscribers at Sleep apnea could signal greater danger).

A group of adults with a long history of loud snoring and mild apnea was given didgeridoo lessons. During the 4-month trial, the 14 volunteers practiced 25 minutes per day, 6 days a week, on acrylic instruments. Another 11 volunteers served as controls.

The didgeridoo players experienced a drop in sleep apnea, daytime sleepiness scores, and other measures of disordered sleep, says Otto Brändli of the Zürcher Höhenklinik Wald in Faltigberg-Wald, Switzerland. Benefits compared favorably with those of conventional treatment using machines called CPAP, which deliver, via plastic masks, continuous positive airway pressure to sleepers. Brändli and his colleagues report their finding in the Feb. 4 British Medical Journal.

Didgeridoo playing appears to work by strengthening muscles in the upper airway, from the back of the mouth through the larynx, Brändli says. A periodic collapse of this airway underlies sleep apnea.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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