Best Sleep Position for Sleep Apnea

Written by Mohammed Aftab

Last Updated March 27, 2024

kaneesha allen Fact checked by Kaneesha Allen

Have you ever been jolted awake in the middle of the night, gasping for air? Has anyone recently noticed you snoring loudly? Maybe they've even noticed times when you stopped breathing entirely? This could all be an indication of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder prevalent throughout the world. The condition is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. If left untreated, it can lead to a number of health problems. Fortunately, sleep apnea’s effects can be reduced with simple lifestyle changes and treatment options.

One of the most effective ways to manage sleep apnea is to find the best sleep position. This article aims to discuss various sleep positions that can lessen sleep apnea symptoms. By the end of it, we hope you'll have a clear idea of the sleeping position most comfortable for you.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where you stop and restart breathing periodically throughout the night. Symptoms of mild to moderate sleep apnea can be alleviated by changing your sleeping position.
  • The best sleeping position for sleep apnea is side sleeping, particularly on your left side. Sleeping on your side keeps your airways open and prevents them from collapsing during the night.
  • The worst sleeping position for sleep apnea is the back sleeping position. When you sleep on your back, gravity can cause the tongue and other soft tissues in the throat to collapse to the back of the throat.
  • To find the ideal sleeping position, try various positions, use a sleep-tracking device, seek positional therapy, and get a comfortable bed.
  • Besides changing your sleep position, alternative sleep apnea treatments include CPAP machines, oral appliances, lifestyle changes, surgery, and BiPAP.

best sleeping position for sleep apnea

Introduction to Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders worldwide. Those afflicted by it repeatedly stop and start breathing throughout the night. According to a recent study, sleep apnea affects the sleep of about 30 million people in the US alone. Sleep disruption can cause a variety of physical and mental health issues!

An individual suffering from sleep apnea usually has either obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) or central sleep apnea (CSA).

  1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea. It occurs when the airway becomes partially or completely obstructed during sleep. This eventually causes breathing to become shallow or stop altogether.

  1. Central Sleep Apnea

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) occurs when the brain fails to communicate properly with the muscles that control breathing. It is less common than OSA and affects those with neuromuscular diseases.

The combination of both Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Central Sleep Apnea is called Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome (CompSAS).

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

a tired sleepy driver yawning

Depending on the type of sleep apnea you have, there are various symptoms that you may experience. The following are some common signs and symptoms:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking up frequently during the night, usually gasping for air
  • Stopping breathing periodically while asleep
  • Feeling tired during the day/daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
  • Morning headaches
  • A sore throat or dry mouth in the morning
  • Difficulty concentrating/forgetting things often
  • Getting irritated/frustrated rather quickly

Some of these symptoms may not even be apparent to you. In fact, it might be your partner or a member of your family who informs you that you've been showing these symptoms. If you notice that you have one or more of these symptoms, you should see a doctor to get yourself a sleep apnea diagnosis. It's best to get a diagnosis done before it devolves into sleep deprivation.

What are the causes of sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is typically brought on by the temporary relaxation of soft tissues in your throat, resulting in the collapse of your airways. This collapsing of the airways can be brought on by a variety of internal or external factors, some of which are:

  1. Obesity: Carrying excess weight, particularly around the neck, can cause the airway to collapse during sleep.
  2. Anatomy: Some people are born with narrower airways, which makes them more likely to become blocked while sleeping.
  3. Age: People who are older tend to have less toned airway muscles, which can cause sleep apnea.
  4. Gender: Due to differences in breathing patterns, anatomy, hormones, etc., men tend to be at a higher risk of developing sleep apnea than women.
  5. Smoking: Smoking irritates and inflames the airways, making them more prone to obstruction during sleep.
  6. Alcohol and sedative use: Drinking alcohol and taking sedatives can relax the airway muscles, making them more likely to collapse.
  7. Family history: Some sleep apnea cases are inherited, suggesting that it may have a genetic component.
  8. Neurological conditions: Conditions such as Parkinson's disease can affect the muscles involved in breathing, increasing the risk of sleep apnea.

Note that some people may have sleep apnea due to a combination of the aforementioned factors. Sometimes it's difficult to determine the condition's precise cause.

Best sleeping position(s) for sleep apnea relief

We all have our favorite sleeping position, don't we? The posture we adopt the moment we hit the bed, hoping for a blissful night's sleep in its embrace. Unfortunately, your sleeping posture may be the primary suspect in the recurrence of your sleep apnea symptoms.

Side sleeping, back sleeping, and stomach sleeping are the three most popular sleeping positions. Combining all of them results in combination sleepers. Among the most common sleep postures, here are the ones you should practice to best alleviate sleep apnea:

  1. Side sleeping

Side sleeping, especially on your left side, is considered the best sleep position for sleep apnea patients. The benefits of side sleeping are aplenty, the most prominent of which is its ability to keep your airways open and your blood flow strong. This position prevents the tongue and soft tissues from collapsing into the back of the throat and causing obstructions.

side sleeping for sleep apnea relief

Side sleeping is also the most popular and beneficial sleeping position for the average sleeper. It has been shown to aid with insomnia and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Sleeping on one's side also aids in maintaining proper spinal alignment.

To get the most out of side sleeping, try stretching your body out for maximum lung capacity. Get a thicker pillow that can keep your head in a neutral position with respect to your spine. A specially designed pillow for sleep apnea, such as a contoured pillow, can be beneficial. For some people, experimenting with a body pillow may be a good idea. All of this is done to prevent your head and neck from being placed in an unnatural position, which increases the risk of airway obstruction.

  1. Stomach sleeping

Sleeping on your stomach is the second most popular sleep position for sleep apnea relief. Granted, it is the least recommended/preferred sleeping posture among doctors and sleepers alike. It is, however, far superior to sleeping on your back if you have sleep apnea. The stomach sleeping position, like side sleeping, allows your airway to remain open.

stomach sleeping for sleep apnea relief

We would only recommend stomach sleeping if you find it difficult to sleep on your side. Stomach sleepers are known to experience neck and spine strain, resulting in pain and discomfort. Sleeping on your stomach is also not recommended if you have acid reflux.

To achieve the best results from stomach sleeping, keep your head straight, facing the pillow. Placing the head sideways may put it in an unnatural position, potentially resulting in airway obstruction. Choose a thin pillow that does not push your head back too far so as not to put strain on your neck. Choose a firm mattress as well, as it will keep you from sinking down to the point of spinal misalignment.

Worst sleeping position for sleep apnea relief

Though back sleeping is widely popular among many, it is the worst position for sleep apnea. The reason for this is simple: gravity can cause the tongue and other soft tissues in the throat to collapse to the back of the throat.

If you have sleep apnea and prefer to sleep on your back, then there are a few ways you can practice this position safely -

  • Use a firm mattress. Sleeping on a firm mattress can help you avoid sinkage and maintain proper spinal alignment, lowering your risk of sleep apnea.
  • Place a pillow under the knees. A pillow under the knees helps keep your spine in proper alignment.
  • Use an elevated pillow for your head. A high loft pillow can help keep the head and neck elevated, preventing the tongue and soft tissues from collapsing.
  • Use an adjustable bed base. If you're not too keen on using an elevated pillow, then an adjustable bed base can help prop you up without putting strain on your neck.
  • Turn your head to the side. Placing your head on either the left or right side can reduce the effect of gravity on your airway, further reducing your risk of sleep apnea.

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Tips on choosing your ideal sleeping position

It may take some trial and error to determine your personal best sleeping position for sleep apnea relief. These tips can be helpful:

  • Experiment with different positions: Try different sleeping positions, like lying on your side, elevating your head with a pillow, or using a body pillow. Keep track of which sleeping positions help to relieve sleep apnea symptoms the most.
  • Use a sleep tracking device: A sleep tracking device can track your sleeping habits and give you details on how you position yourself while you sleep. You can use this information to determine which sleeping positions will lessen the symptoms of sleep apnea.
  • Try positional therapy: Positional therapy involves sleeping in a particular position, like on your side, to lessen the symptoms of sleep apnea. Wearing special items, such as a positional therapy belt, can also help some people maintain their ideal sleeping position.
  • Get comfortable: Check to see if your pillows, mattress, and other bedding are cozy and supportive. A relaxing sleep environment makes it easier to find the best sleep positions.
  • Talk to your doctor: Consult your doctor if you're having trouble determining the best sleep positions for sleep apnea relief. They can give you personalized recommendations and additional advice on how to reduce sleep apnea symptoms.

a person sleeping on an adjustable base bed

Alternative sleep apnea treatments

Aside from changing your sleeping position, there are several other treatments for sleep apnea. The following are some of the most common treatments:

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): CPAP is a machine that provides continuous airflow during sleep in order to keep the airway open. It is regarded as the most effective method of treating sleep apnea.

Oral appliances: Oral appliances, such as mandibular advancement devices, keep the airway open by repositioning the jaw and tongue. They are frequently used as an alternative to CPAP for mild to moderate sleep apnea.

Lifestyle changes: Changing one's lifestyle may reduce the severity of sleep apnea symptoms. For example, losing weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol can greatly aid in reducing the effects of sleep apnea.

Surgery: Sleep apnea is sometimes treated surgically. This includes procedures such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) or genioglossus advancement (GA).

Positive airway pressure therapy with a bi-level device: Bi-level Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) is a type of positive airway pressure therapy. With it, the pressure for inhalation is higher than the pressure for exhalation.

There is no doubt that the best treatment for sleep apnea will vary depending on the individual and the severity of their symptoms. Working with your doctor to determine the best treatment plan for your specific needs is, therefore, essential.

Conclusion

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that, in many cases, necessitates treatment. Changing your sleep posture is one method for alleviating the symptoms of sleep apnea. However, determining the best sleep position for sleep apnea relief can be difficult at times.

Sleeping on your side, preferably your left, is generally the best position for sleep apnea patients. Conversely, sleeping on your back (the wrong way) can exacerbate symptoms. If you aren't comfortable sleeping on your side, you can try stomach sleeping. However, stomach sleeping has its own set of problems, so keep that in mind before you try it.

Try different sleep postures, sleep-tracking devices, and positional therapy to find your best sleep position. Sleep apnea can also be treated with lifestyle changes, oral appliances, CPAP machines, etc.

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FAQs

  1. What position makes sleep apnea worse?

Sleeping on one's back (also known as the supine position) can aggravate sleep apnea symptoms. It causes the tongue and soft tissues in the throat to relax and collapse to the back of the throat, obstructing the airway. In fact, back sleeping is considered the worst sleep position for people who suffer from sleep apnea.

  1. Does sleeping with your head elevated help with sleep apnea?

For some people, sleeping with their heads elevated can help relieve the symptoms of sleep apnea. Sleeping with the head elevated, especially when sleeping on the back, can help keep the airway clear of any obstructions. Using a high-loft pillow or an adjustable bed base is the best way to elevate your head.

  1. Does sleeping in a sitting position help reduce sleep apnea symptoms?

Sleeping in a sitting position might help relieve symptoms of moderate/mild sleep apnea for some. This is because it involves elevating your head as high as you can, which reduces the risk of your airways collapsing.

However, sleeping in a sitting position is not for everyone, and it may not be effective for severe sleep apnea. It can even be painful for some people, particularly if they have underlying medical conditions like back or neck pain.

  1. How can I sleep better with sleep apnea?

Sleeping on your left side is the most effective way to get a good night's sleep. Maintaining an elevated head can also help keep your airway open. Aside from what you do in bed, you should also pay attention to your outside lifestyle. Losing weight, reducing alcohol consumption, and consulting a doctor are also helpful for sleep apnea.

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Disclaimer: What is said in this article has been referenced from multiple sources and is intended only for educational and informational purposes. Please note that no content in this article is a substitute for professional advice from a qualified doctor or healthcare provider. Always consult an experienced doctor with any concerns you may have regarding a health condition or treatment, and never disregard any medical suggestions or delay in seeking treatment because of something you read here.

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