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What’s The Best Sleeping Position For Sleep Apnea?

If you suffer from sleep apnea, you know what it’s like to wake up groggy and exhausted. For those who have not yet been diagnosed, the uncertainty of why you can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep can make that grogginess worse. In both cases, you can make adjustments to your sleep position for a better night’s sleep. There is a best sleeping position for sleep apnea, and it can make all the difference. Here’s what you should know.

How our sleeping position can influence sleep apnea

Sleep apnea affects an estimated 25 million people in the U.S. (although some place this number much higher). There are three types of sleep apnea.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: The soft tissues of the throat relax back to block the airway
  • Central sleep apnea: The nervous system essentially forgets to reflexively breathe
  • Complex sleep apnea: A dangerous combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea

The most common form by far is obstructive sleep apnea, affecting approximately 22 of the 25 million sleep apnea patients.

For all three types, sleepers experience a long pause in breathing, up to 20 times an hour, followed by a gasping intake of breath. Beyond the grinding daytime fatigue, sleep apnea has other symptoms that include the following:

  • Snoring
  • Mental fogginess and difficulty concentrating
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Morning headache
  • Loss of sexual drive
  • Nighttime sweating that’s unrelated to another condition, such as menopause
  • High blood pressure issues

Sleep apnea is about more than just a little morning headache and difficulty sleeping, though. Untreated sleep apnea can cause serious health issues, including dementiastrokeheart disease, and even death.

For many sleep apnea sufferers, finding the best sleeping position for sleep apnea is a key treatment. While this positional therapy won’t likely replace other sleep apnea treatments (e.g., sleep apnea dental devices or CPAP machines), it can go a long way to working towards a better night’s sleep.

What’s the best sleeping position for sleep apnea?

As many as 50% of obstructive sleep apnea sufferers have positional obstructive sleep apnea, which means that their symptoms are worse depending on their sleeping position.

Even people with central sleep apnea are affected by their sleeping position. A study in 2005 found that their apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) was reduced by 50% when sleepers changed sleeping position. This means that their apneas (pauses in breath) decreased in frequency and length simply by sleeping differently.

Turns out there is, in fact, a best sleeping position for sleep apnea.

Side sleeping

Side sleeping seems to be the best position for sleep apnea sufferers. When the sleeper is on their side, even if the muscles of the throat relax, they will not block the airway as frequently, if at all.

Side sleeping is often the best sleeping position for those who suffer not only from sleep apnea but also from back pain complaints. Some patients who experience hip pain when sleeping on their side might find it helpful to place a small pillow between their knees for proper hip alignment.

Side sleeping is not without its issues, though. Side sleepers may continue to snore, which can be problematic for their sleeping partners. Additionally, people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may find their symptoms increase when they sleep on their right side.

Stomach sleeping

Stomach sleeping is the next best sleeping position for sleep apnea (and may be the best sleeping position for snoring as well). This position maintains an open airway in the same way that side sleeping does.

However, for people with lower back pain, this position can make it exponentially worse. People who sleep on their stomachs also see, over time, an increase in acne or changes to the skin (a.k.a. wrinkles).

Back sleeping

Back sleeping is the worst sleeping position for sleep apnea sufferers, especially those who have obstructive sleep apnea. Gravity draws the muscles and tissues of the throat back and down, and back sleeping aids that gravity.

For people with lower back pain, though, back sleeping may be the only way they can get through the night. Fortunately, there are adjustments you can make to each sleeping position (even back sleeping) to make it safer and more comfortable.

What else can help with my sleep apnea?

Although not a positional therapy for sleep apnea, per se, using a wedge-shaped pillow can elevate your head slightly to prevent the airway from closing. This may not be a good option for sleep apnea patients who also have pain in their neck, however. If you use an extra fluffy pillow not a wedge, the opposite effect may occur, with the airway closed off before an apnea even occurs.

Some patients with adjustable beds might find that sleeping on an incline helps them to keep their airways open better and more safely than a pillow while reducing snoring (a key marker of sleep apnea). This is especially useful for people who prefer to sleep on their back due to lower back pain.

Another common issue is acid reflux at night for side sleepers. If this is the best sleeping position for your sleep apnea, flip over to your left side to find some relief from heartburn. Having your final meal of the day earlier can also help to prevent GERD when you lay down for bed.

Side sleeping is the best sleeping position for sleep apnea but many people unused to it may have difficulty maintaining this position all night long. An easy and low-tech solution is to place a firm body pillow behind you to prevent turning over. If this does not work, a couple of tennis balls worn in a fanny pack on your back can also give you the nudge you need to stay on your side.

Positional therapy should be just one part of a comprehensive treatment strategy for sleep apnea that also includes other treatment options. These can include:

AZ Sleep is a sleep apnea dentist that can design the best treatment approach for you. If you are ready for a good night’s sleep, get in touch today!

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