Sleeping positions – which one is best (or worst) for sleep apnea

A majority of people have their own preferred way to fall asleep at night – whether it’s on your side, your back, your stomach, or even curled up next to an additional pillow. Normally, this is simply a personal choice and isn’t anything to worry about; however, if you have breathing problems or sleep apnea, your sleeping position can significantly impact the quality of your sleep.

Your sleeping position is important to consider, especially if you have sleep apnea, because it can affect the quality of your sleep and determine how good you feel the next day.

Which sleeping position is best when you have sleep apnea?

Lying down creates different breathing conditions for your body from when you are upright. This is because when you're on your feet or sitting, your airways are pointing downward, leaving breathing and airflow fairly unrestricted. However, when you lie down, your body is forced to breathe in a horizontal position – which means that gravity is now working against your airways.

Sleeping on your back: not recommended

If you snore or have sleep apnea, sleeping on your back is not recommended because gravity increases the tendency for your jaw, tongue, and soft palate to drop back toward your throat, narrowing your airways and leading to increased breathing difficulties.

Sleeping on your stomach: slightly better

Sleeping on your stomach might seem like a good alternative sleeping position because the downward force pulls your tongue and palate forward and ultimately away from your airways. While this is true to an extent, when you sleep on your stomach your mouth and nose are still either blocked or impaired by your pillow — or your neck is twisted to the side to maintain breathing — all of which are counterproductive in clearing your airways to avoid snoring and sleep apnea.

Source: Joosten, Simon A et al. “The Effect of Body Position on Physiological Factors that Contribute to Obstructive Sleep Apnea.” Sleep vol. 38,9 1469-78. 1 Sep. 2015, doi:10.5665/sleep.4992

Sleeping on your side: the ideal position

Research has suggested that sleeping on your side is ideal for people who snore and suffer from sleep apnea,¹ as their airways are more stable and less likely to collapse or restrict air.

However, this position doesn’t always come naturally to some people. It’s common for people to start off lying on their side, and then roll onto their back or even their stomach while they sleep, making their snoring and sleep apnea worse. Sleeping on your side may be your best option to get deep, restful sleep and wake up with the energy to face the day.

Find the right pillow for maximum comfort

A contoured pillow or one with memory foam, which holds its shape better than a regular pillow, can help guide your body and keep your head in the right position when you sleep. The pressure-relieving nature of memory foam works well for CPAP users, and helps to prevent air leaks and facial bruising.

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