Three Best Sleeping Positions for Sleep Apnea

October 16, 2021

A survey by Nature of Science and Sleep reported that 54.1 percent of adults prefer to sleep on their side in the fetal position, while just 37.5 percent prefer to sleep on their back. While the benefits vary slightly, the essential component here is that we are indeed sleeping. Sleep is necessary for proper body and mental function during the day.

That said, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 35 percent of adults fail to sleep the minimum number of hours—seven each night. And individuals struggling with sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), such as sleep apnea, are in an even worse position; therefore, it is critical to identify possible easy-to-implement solutions to ensure the best possible sleep.

Interested in the best sleep positions for sleep apnea? Here are the three sleep positions recommended by sleep specialists.

On Your Side

Sleep apnea is a condition in which the affected individual stops breathing during periods of subconsciousness. These episodes can last anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds and occur several times per hour. The result? The individual essentially becomes hypoxic during sleep, waking with extreme exhaustion, mental fog, moodiness, headaches, and more. Left untreated, the individual can develop many comorbidities, such as heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and more.

Studies show that 85–98 percent of individuals with sleep apnea snore. This is because snoring is a clear indicator of an issue with the airway. When we snore, one of two things has happened: Either the tongue relaxes and fails to maintain suction high in the palette, instead falling back into the airway, or the tissues that line the throat compress, due to excess weight or otherwise. Sleeping on your side is an excellent way to reduce snoring, as pressure on the throat is reduced, allowing us to maintain an open airway. Additionally, sleeping on our side, especially the left side, may aid in digestion and reduce the chance of heartburn or gastric reflux.

It is highly recommended that side sleepers invest in a quality pillow, as side sleeping can place strain on your jaw, neck, and back. Consider a memory foam pillow such as this option by Saatva. It’s a fully customizable pillow that is exceptionally well suited for individuals with neck or shoulder pain. Another option is this one by Tempur-Pedic, which boasts a cool touch and close-body memory foam perfect for side sleepers. A more budget-friendly alternative is this easy-to-care-for foam pillow by Casper. It includes a removable cover and two options for thickness, and is constructed with a temperature-controlled material for hot sleepers.

On Your Belly

While sleeping on your belly isn’t the best option for your neck, shoulders, and back, it is excellent for individuals who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Why? When we lay on our stomach, gravity causes our tongue to fall towards the front of our palette instead of backward into the airway. This ensures an open and fully functional airway, free from snoring and other side effects of OSA.

However, it is essential to consider compensating for the unnatural position on your neck by sleeping with an ultrathin pillow such as this or eliminating the use of a pillow altogether to ensure your head stays in proper alignment. Otherwise, you may experience neck and shoulder pain from the unnatural position during extended periods of sleep.

On Your Back—But Only with Your Head Elevated

Sleeping on your back is the best position for sleep, as it protects your spine and keeps your head and neck in alignment. That said, for individuals with OSA, it can pose many issues as your body weight shifts back and onto the airway, causing reduced airflow and increasing sleep apnea symptoms.

To combat this, consider elevating your head with an additional pillow, such as this Bekweim wedge, or an adjustable mattress, such as this one by GhostBed. This will ensure proper body alignment and mirror your posture during waking hours. Elevating your head during sleep is also beneficial for increasing digestion, reducing acid reflux, and assisting with drainage of the sinuses.

For individuals struggling with SDB, sleeping on your side, stomach, or back with your head elevated are the best positions to reduce symptoms and increase airflow. While these solutions are quick and easy to implement, it is essential to talk to your dentist specializing in airway or primary care physician (PCP) about your symptoms and the possibility of taking an at-home or in-office sleep test. This will ensure proper diagnosis and the best treatment plan possible.