When functioning properly, the throat is in constant use 24/7, either keeping people alive and in good health; or when malfunctioning, it can result in pain, suffering, or death!
Through the mouth and down the throat, we consume 40 tons (36,000 kilograms) of food in a lifetime and inhale over 499,000 cubic yards (381,513 cubic meters) of air.
The larynx, or "voice box", is located about five inches down the throat from the pharynx at the back of the nose. Just below the larynx, the throat divides into two tubes, the trachea going to the lungs, and the food tube, or esophagus, going to the stomach.
The larynx acts as a derailer to divert food, drink, and air down their respective tracks. When we swallow, the larynx rises causing a piece of cartilage called the epiglottis to move up and back over the glotis, the pathway for air through the trachea. When it works as it should, such actions make a tight seal so that people are prevented from "swallowing the wrong way".
Should the larynx be prevented from doing its assigned work, food or drink can slip into the trachea, setting off a fit of coughing to dislodge the food before it blocks the airway and threatens to suffocate the individual.
During swallowing, a flap of tissue at the rear of the soft palate on the roof of the mouth moves up to cover the nasal passages above so that food and drink do not go up and run out the nose. This flap is the uvula which has nothing to do with projecting the voice as is sometimes assumed.
Because of the switching mechanism of the larynx, it is possible for a person to defy gravity and swallow while standing on his/her head instead of drooling saliva from the mouth, an important esthetic consideration for gymnasts, yoga enthusiasts, and circus performers.
The throat and how it functions
The throat has a series of precisely timed events which occur and whose precision can determine whether a person lives or dies.
- The throat, as a complex transportation system, has elaborate switching devices designed to sort and to move assorted cargo: air, fluids, and solids.
- The throat is a "finished piece of machinery ready to go to work at the time of a person's birth or that baby would have strangled on its first sip of milk.
- The neck is a traffic jam of nerves, blood vessels, vertebrae, other bits and pieces and a variety of tubes.
- The first tube is a five-inch-long pharynx that is vaguely funnel-shaped, the wide portion at the top, which begins behind the nose and ends behind the Adam's apple or voice box.
- Next is the larynx, the main switching point, that routes traffic in the right directions and also serves as the primary component of the speech apparatus.
- A tapered cylinder, roughly shaped like a baseball bat when viewed from above, is an intricate arrangement of nine cartilages, covered with mucous membrane and bound together by ligaments; part of which protrudes in the neck as the voice box.
- Next, lower, come two tubes: the esophagus which leads to the stomach; then the trachea going to the lungs.
- To see how the throat, or neck, works, let's see how a person swallows a mouthful of food.
- After it is chewed, the tongue maneuvers the food to the back of the mouth.
- The ulvula; the little red finger that hangs from the roof of the mouth at the back, rises and helps to shut off passages to the nostrils.
- Then the tongue humps up, gives a push, and the food is on its way down towards the stomach.
- To prevent swallowing going into the wrong tube, the "Adam's apple", or voice box, rises and closes a flap valve (the epiglottis) that sits directly over the windpipe.
- The mouthful of food slides safely by and into the food tube, or esophagus, which is muscled and is able to produce wavelike pushes to finish the job of delivering the food to the stomach.
- As the person eats, there is a valvelike muscle that opens and closes where the esophagus enters the stomach; so, the food is passed along only as fast as the stomach can comfortably handle it.
- Sometimes, the valve may get bulky and let acid from the stomach leak upward to attack the delicate membranes of the espophagus whch can mean discomfort; however, usually food, drink, and saliva can be swallowed hundreds of times each day with no problems.
The troubles that can strike the throat cover an enormous range which account for about one fourth of all the visits to doctors' offices
- Because of air, drinks, and foods; the throat is constantly exposed to bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
- Although the tonsils try to destroy them, and the mucous blanket that covers the tract tries to trap and sweep them away; there is an unceasing warfare.
- When the invaders occasionally win, a person has a sore throat.
- The larynx is the chief target of these attacks because there are dozens of things that can irritate it; such as, noxious auto exhausts, chimney fumes, cigarette smoke, etc.; and so it may respond with laryngitis causing the voice to become hoarse and dropping to a whisper or failing altogether.
- Coughing is one of the most important reflexes people have and it has been accurately described as the "watchdog of the throat".
- Coughing is the major protection against an irritant whether is is mucus, food, or drink that "goes down the wrong way" or even cigarette smoke.
- Whatever causes the irritation, the throat tries to expel the troublemaker by trapping air and letting it out with a 200-miles per hour blast.
- The larynx is also a frequent target for cancer, but fortunately, this slow-spreading cancer is one of the most easily detected and most readily cured by cobalt treatment or surgery.
- Just the same, if the larynx produces hoarseness for two weeks, the person should see a doctor as soon as possible.
- To summarize, for all of the complexities of the throat, it usually performs so well that a person rarely thinks about it.
Cross references related to "neck, throat" word families: