Soft Palate: Functions, Problems & Treatment

What is the Soft Palate?

The soft and hard palates make up the roof of the mouth. The soft palate is located behind the hard palate in the back of the mouth. 

The soft palate does not consist of any bone. It is a fleshy part of the mouth that ends in the uvula

The uvula hangs down from the soft palate and is noticeable when you open your mouth. It blocks the nasal cavity when you are eating and drinking.

The soft palate is made of muscle and tissue, making it mobile and flexible. When you swallow or suck, the soft palate entirely separates the mouth from the throat. This helps keep food from making its way into the respiratory tract.

The soft palate is also recognized as the muscular palate or the velum

What are the Main Functions of the Soft Palate?

The soft palate is essential for the structure of the mouth. It provides several vital functions:

Speech

Speech is a complex process that involves the tongue, lips, and palate. These components produce speech by sending airflow through the mouth to make certain sounds that create words. 

When someone has a cleft palate or another soft palate disorder, air can leave through the nose and affect speech. The speech may sound weak or nasal. 

Breathing

The soft palate separates the nose and mouth. It serves as a barrier between the digestive and respiratory tracts. This enables a person to breathe and eat simultaneously.

However, people cannot swallow and breathe at the same time.

Swallowing

When people swallow, they shift food or liquid from the mouth into the esophagus to reach the stomach. 

When you swallow, more than 30 muscles and nerves work to send food toward the stomach rather than the nose or lungs.2

The soft palate also seals the opening of the airways to stop pressure from escaping through the nose.

Soft Palate vs. Hard Palate: What’s the Difference?

The hard and soft palates create the roof of the mouth. 

The soft palate consists of muscles and tissues at the back of the roof of the mouth. The soft palate is the area where the oral cavity ends and the oropharynx begins. 

The hard palate is found at the roof of the mouth and contains palatine bone.

The hard palate is two-thirds of the palate. It gives structure in the mouth and enables space for the tongue to move around.1

What Does it Mean if Your Soft Palate Hurts?

The soft palate contains a few kinds of body tissues, including:

  • Blood vessels
  • Muscles
  • Ligaments
  • Fat

It is common for the soft palate to show signs of swelling and inflammation if the body has a viral, bacterial, or fungal invasion. 

Since this area is linked to both the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, it is essential to evaluate any symptoms to understand the cause of the swelling. 

What Causes Soft Palate Pain & Inflammation? 

There are various causes of soft palate pain and inflammation, some more serious than others:

Oral cancer

The early signs of oral cancer include:

  • Swelling
  • Lumps
  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Loss of function

Your health care provider is the ideal medical professional to address soft palate cancer concerns. You can request a screening during a routine teeth cleaning.

The most common type of soft palate cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. It is treated similarly to other cancers with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Injury or trauma

One of the most common causes of soft palate pain is an injury or trauma. 

Some of the most common causes of injury or trauma include:

  • Eating hard foods that hit the roof of the mouth
  • Consuming an extremely hot food or drink 
  • A scratch from an edged or sharp piece of food

Dehydration

Dehydration can make the roof of the mouth swell, leading to dry mouth.

Some common causes of dehydration include:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Some medications
  • Not drinking enough water
  • Excessive sweating, especially on hot days or while exercising
  • Illness

When to See a Doctor for Soft Palate Pain 

Most causes of soft palate pain do not require medical care. However, you should meet with a doctor or general dentist in some circumstances.

Some reasons to see a doctor for soft palate pain include:

  • Pain that does not leave with over-the-counter medications 
  • Unexplained swelling or swelling that persists for longer than a week
  • Swelling that comes with other symptoms 

In most circumstances, soft palate pain should not be a cause for concern. Usually, a person fully recovers within a few days to a week.

Diagnosis & Treatment for Soft Palate Cancer

There are various tests and procedures available to diagnose soft palate cancer. There are also several treatments available.3

Diagnosis

Soft palate cancer tests include examining your soft palate. Your doctor uses a mirror or tiny camera to view your soft palate and other structures in your throat. 

Your doctor may also remove a tissue sample for testing. In the lab, pathologists will assess the tissue sample for signs of cancer.

To understand the size of your cancer and to assess for signs that cancer may have spread beyond your soft palate, your doctor may suggest imaging tests like:

  • Computerized tomography (CT)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)

Treatment

Treatment for soft palate cancer depends on various factors, including:

  • The size and location of your cancer
  • Your general health
  • Your treatment preferences

Surgery is one of the treatment options for soft palate cancer. The goal of surgery is to remove as much of the soft palate cancer as possible. If the cancer is small, it may be extracted during a short operation that does not require a hospital stay.

More significant cancers may require more complex operations. When cancer has spread to the neck lymph nodes, lymph node removal may be required.

Radiation therapy is another treatment option. Radiation uses beams of high energy, like x-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells. It can be used on its own or with chemotherapy or surgery to treat soft palate cancers of all stages.

Chemotherapy is another option that uses drugs to eradicate cancer cells. This treatment can be combined with radiation therapy.

Reconstructive surgery may be another option (depending on where the soft palate cancer is located and how far it has spread).

Home Remedies for Soft Palate Pain 

In most cases, soft palate pain can be treated at home. Soft palate pain resulting from common injuries like a burn from a hot drink will usually heal on its own within a few days.

In some circumstances, a person may decide to use medications to help treat a cold sore. In the case of dehydration or electrolyte imbalance, the best treatment is to increase your liquid intake. It is advised to consume non-alcoholic drinks like water or herbal tea.

If your electrolytes are too low, you can drink a sports drink or juice to restore the balance.

In cases of an underlying condition, you should seek medical attention from a doctor.

Resources

9. The velum, Department of Linguistics, UCLA

Panara K, Ramezanpour Ahangar E, Padalia D. Physiology, Swallowing. [Updated 2021 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing

Soft palate cancer, Mayo Clinic, August 2021

Cho, Jae Hoon et al. “Surgical anatomy of human soft palate.” The Laryngoscope vol. 123,11 (2013): 2900-4

Helwany M, Rathee M. Anatomy, Head and Neck, Palate. [Updated 2021 Jun 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan

Scully, C, and S Porter. “Oral cancer.” The Western journal of medicine vol. 174,5 (2001): 348-51. doi:10.1136/ewjm.174.5.348

newmouth logo
menu linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram