What position do you sleep in? According to a study done to observe common sleeping positions, participants spent 54 percent of the night sleeping on their side, 37 percent on their back, and 7 percent on their stomach.3
If you suffer from sleep apnea, have you considered the effect of your sleep position? You might not realize it, but your position when you sleep can have a significant impact on your ability to breathe at night.2
So, what are the best sleeping positions for sufferers of sleep apnea? In short, here are the best sleeping positions, in order, for those who experience sleep apnea:
- On your side (left side preferred)
- On your stomach
- On your back (with your head elevated)
Continue reading for more details about the best sleeping positions and why they are beneficial. We’ll go over how to change your sleeping habits and what to do if adjusting your sleep position does not improve your symptoms of sleep apnea.
What Is the Best Sleeping Position for Someone with Sleep Apnea?
The best position to sleep in for sleep apnea is on your side. This is because sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue in the throat relaxes too much or collapses and blocks the airways. This is manifest in symptoms such as snoring, waking up gasping for air, night sweats, restlessness while sleeping, waking up with a dry mouth, excessive daytime sleepiness, trouble concentrating, and headaches. When you sleep on your back, gravity works against you and makes it easier for tissue to block your airway. However, sleeping on your side avoids this problem and helps keep your airway open while you sleep.
If you can pick a side to sleep on, it is recommended to choose the left side. Studies show that, due to the placement of organs in your body, sleeping on the left side lowers the frequency of heartburn and acid reflux. In addition to improving symptoms of sleep apnea and heartburn, sleeping on one’s side can have other positive health effects, including easing neck and back pain, eliminating toxins, and supporting sleep for pregnant women.
Side sleeping can take multiple forms:
- The Fetal Position: In this position, the sleeper curls up with their legs tucked in. The fetal position is shown to be healthy for pregnant women.
- The Yearner: This is similar to the fetal position, but the arms are extended out in front of them, which helps with breathing.
- The Log: As you might guess, in this position, the sleepier lies with their arms straight at their side and their legs extended straight. This position is recommended for those with sleep apnea but can be hard on the joints.
- The Pillow Hug: Just as it sounds, in this position, the sleeper wraps their arms around a pillow, which props their body up and can be easier on the joints.
When sleeping on your side, make sure your head, neck, and spine are all supported and aligned. Consider a thicker pillow under your head, and feel free to place an extra pillow under your neck or in between your legs to keep the spine aligned and provide cushion for your joints.
What If I Toss and Turn at Night?
If you find yourself tossing, turning, and rolling over during the night, there are a few things you can do to sleep more soundly:
- Stick to a routine. Your body loves consistency. When you stick to a regular schedule of waking up, eating meals, exercising, and going to bed, it signals to your body when it is time to sleep and makes it easier to get a good night’s rest.
- Avoid naps. Napping during the day can throw off your body’s internal clock and make it difficult to sleep well at night.
- Eat healthily. Nutrition can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Be sure to eat healthy, balanced meals so your body can function its best, including sleeping soundly.
- Get regular exercise. Exercising during the day can make it easier to fall and stay asleep at night.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. These substances are stimulants and can prevent you from falling asleep or getting good quality sleep.
- Create a sleep space. Making a relaxing sleeping environment can help your body wind down and know it is time for bed. Make your bed as comfortable as you can, and avoid doing other things besides sleeping in your sleep space.
- Put away electronics. Stop using your electronic devices at least an hour before you go to bed to allow your mind and body to prepare for bed.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Practices like deep breathing and meditation can help your body calm down and slow down before bed so you can sleep more soundly.
In addition, if you want to sleep on your side but find yourself rolling to other positions while you are asleep, you can train yourself to sleep on your side. One way to do this is to put a pillow behind you so that when you are tempted to roll on your back, the pillow gets in the way. To take it a step further, fasten a tennis ball to the front and back of your shirt so, if you roll to your back or stomach, it is too uncomfortable to stay there.
Is Modifying My Sleeping Position Enough?
In mild cases of sleep apnea, adjusting your sleeping position may be enough. However, in some cases, additional treatment might be necessary. Positional obstructive sleep apnea (POSA) refers to an increase in apneas by 50 percent simply when a patient sleeps on their back.1 If you need additional treatment, or if symptoms don’t improve with adjusting your sleeping position, here are some alternative treatment options:
- Airway pressure devices
- Oral appliances
- Treatment for associated medical problems
- Supplemental oxygen
- Adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV)
Consult with your healthcare provider to determine the best solution for you based on your lifestyle and the severity of your symptoms.
If you experience symptoms of sleep apnea, you might want to start by evaluating your sleep position and the effect it might be having. If you sleep on your back, try switching to sleeping on your side or stomach. If you must sleep on your back, be sure to keep your head elevated. After all that, if you are still experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, you will want to consult with your healthcare provider and consider other treatment options.
1. Fransson, A. M. C., Isacsson, G., & Nohlert, E. (2022). The outcome of oral appliance therapy on position-dependent obstructive sleep apnea: A multicenter randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics: Official Publication of the American Association of Orthodontists, Its Constituent Societies, and the American Board of Orthodontics. doi:10.1016/j.ajodo.2021.04.029
2. Ravesloot, M. J., van Maanen, J. P., Dun, L., & de Vries, N. (2013). The undervalued potential of positional therapy in position-dependent snoring and obstructive sleep apnea-a review of the literature. Sleep & breathing = Schlaf & Atmung, 17(1), 39–49. doi:10.1007/s11325-012-0683-5
3. Skarpsno, E. S., Mork, P. J., Nilsen, T., & Holtermann, A. (2017). Sleep positions and nocturnal body movements based on free-living accelerometer recordings: association with demographics, lifestyle, and insomnia symptoms. Nature and science of sleep, 9, 267–275. doi:10.2147/NSS.S145777
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