Snoring is often talked about by doctors. Well, that makes sense. After all, snoring is a health issue that deserves medical attention. That puts doctors in a very good position to impart critical information about snoring. Needless to say, they’re the best people who can help cure it as well.
It’s seldom that we hear engineers talk about snoring. So, when they do, our ears are open.
Haibo Dong is an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Dong and Ph.D. students Junshi Wang and Pan Han are gaining new understanding of the fundamental science behind sleep apnea by using CT scans and MRIs to image the mouth and nose and the full airway – the “windpipe” – during snoring and apnea, and then computer-modeling the actions that cause vibrations of the uvula and obstructions. They are looking for the changes in the shape of the airway during sleep that cause perturbations in airflow. Those perturbations are the vibrations of snoring and the often-resulting breathing difficulties.
Snoring can be treated. Unfortunately, some treatments fail.
“Treatments often fail because there is a knowledge gap of the fundamental science behind the reasons for this health issue,” said Haibo Dong, a University of Virginia associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who specializes in fluid dynamics research.
Understanding how snoring is produced can help bridge the gap. Research that puts together engineers and doctors can hopefully solve that.
If Dong’s team and his research colleagues, including Dr. James Daniero, a head and neck surgeon in UVA’s Department of Otolaryngology, can understand the basic mechanics of sound produced during normal breathing, then perhaps better treatments and longer-term solutions for abnormalities may be possible.
“This work is highly interdisciplinary and involves scientific problems in the fields of biology, physics, physiology and engineering,” Dong said. “By studying biological fluid dynamics, we are trying to predict and eventually control sleep apnea and snoring.”
Read on to see how they’re trying to do it.
Dong has now modeled both normal breathing and the breathing conditions of sleep apnea for people from 8 months to 80 years old. He is identifying the “force reduction,” the point when normal breathing does not provide enough air volume to keep the front and back of the airway open, resulting in collapse.
“With a normal airway, we see a very smooth channel that doesn’t vibrate much, and where there is not much force difference on the airway walls during breathing,” Dong said. “But with sleep apnea, we see fluctuations in force that become bigger and bigger, causing more and more vibration.