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What is a yawn?
Yawning is a mostly involuntary process of opening the mouth and breathing in deeply, filling the lungs with air. It’s a very natural response to being tired. In fact, yawning is usually triggered by sleepiness or fatigue.
Some yawns are short, and some last for several seconds before an open-mouthed exhale. Watery eyes, stretching, or audible sighs may accompany yawning.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure why yawning occurs, but common triggers include fatigue and boredom. Yawns may also occur when you talk about yawning or see or hear someone else yawn.
It’s believed that contagious yawning may have something to do with social communication. In addition, a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research suggests that yawning may help cool the temperature of the brain.
Excessive yawning is yawning that occurs more than once per minute. Although excessive yawning is usually attributed to being sleepy or bored, it may be a symptom of an underlying medical problem.
Certain conditions can cause a vasovagal reaction, which results in excessive yawning. During a vasovagal reaction, there’s increased activity in the vagus nerve. This nerve runs from the brain down to the throat and into the abdomen.
When the vagus nerve becomes more active, heart rate and blood pressure drop significantly. The reaction can indicate anything from a sleep disorder to a serious heart condition.
The exact cause of excessive yawning isn’t known. However, it may occur as a result of:
- drowsiness, tiredness, or fatigue
- sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy
- side effects of medications that are used to treat depression or anxiety, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- bleeding in or around the heart
Although less common, excessive yawning could also indicate:
- a brain tumor
- a heart attack
- multiple sclerosis
- liver failure
- body’s inability to control its temperature
Talk to your doctor if you’ve noticed a sudden increase in your yawning, especially if you’ve been yawning frequently for no apparent reason. Only your doctor can determine whether or not the excessive yawning is occurring as a result of a medical problem.
To identify the cause of excessive yawning, your doctor may first ask you about your sleep habits. They’ll want to make sure that you’re getting adequate restful sleep. This can help them determine whether your excessive yawning is occurring as a result of being fatigued or having a sleep disorder.
After ruling out sleep issues, your doctor will perform diagnostic tests to find another possible cause for excessive yawning.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) is one of the tests that may be used. An EEG measures the electrical activity in the brain. It can help your doctor diagnose epilepsy and other conditions affecting the brain.
Your doctor may also order an MRI scan. This test uses powerful magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of the body, which can help doctors visualize and assess bodily structures.
These pictures are often used to diagnose spinal cord and brain disorders, such as tumors and multiple sclerosis. An MRI scan is also beneficial for evaluating the function of the heart and detecting heart problems.
If medications are causing excessive yawning, your doctor may recommend a lower dosage. Make sure to discuss this with your doctor before making any changes to your medications. You should never stop taking medications without approval from your doctor.
If excessive yawning is occurring as a result of a sleep disorder, your doctor may recommend sleep-aid medications or techniques for getting more restful sleep. These may include:
- using a breathing device
- exercising to reduce stress
- adhering to a regular sleep schedule
If excessive yawning is a symptom of a serious medical condition, such as epilepsy or liver failure, then the underlying problem must be treated immediately.