The submandibular glands are a pair of salivary glands located in the bottom of the mouth, on each side of the lower jaw. The primary function of the submandibular glands is to control the release saliva into the area of the mouth that is located just under the tongue. These glands, which are often referred to as submaxillary glands, are one of the three types of salivary glands, along with the parotid and sublingual glands.
The submandibular glands are round in shape and lie just in front of a muscle known as the sternomastoid muscle. Above these glands, but under the tongue, is a mucous membrane that covers the floor of the mouth. The salivary glands are connected to a duct system that controls the flow of saliva into the mouth. The release of saliva from these ducts and into the mouth is particularly beneficial at night, because it keeps the mouth from drying out during sleep.
The submandibular duct measures approximately 2 inches (5 cm) long. It is considerably thinner than some of the other salivary ducts. This is the duct that is responsible for draining saliva from the submandibular and sublingual glands and for emptying the saliva at the base of the tongue.
The submandibular duct causes the saliva to flow in somewhat of an uphill direction. This sometimes can lead to minor discomfort because of swelling and the formation of salivary stones. In most cases, this is merely an annoyance to the patient and not a major medical concern. Many times, the discomfort associated with the swelling and stone formation can be remedied by something as simple as sucking on something sour, such as a lemon wedge or dill pickle. This activity is aimed at increasing the production of saliva, which can in turn rid the body of the stones that have formed in the submandibular glands.
In the event that large stones develop or other abnormalities are present, surgery sometimes is performed. However, most people will never experience altered performance of the submandibular glands. In the rare cases that there is a medical concern involving these glands, both a maxillofacial surgeon and an ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon are qualified and generally experienced in treating such disorders.
The submandibular duct is often referred to as Wharton's duct. It is named after the English anatomist, Thomas Wharton, who is often credited with the discovery of this duct in 1656. The duct was actually described, however, in about 1500 by Alessandro Achillini.