Trying to find the best sleep position for sleep apnea is rarely an easy task.
No matter how much you rearrange yourself in bed, those apnea episodes just keep coming, preventing you from getting the kind of great quality sleep you need to function at your best throughout the waking day.
If that problem sounds familiar, this guide is for you.
Below, we’ll outline the best ways to sleep if you have sleep apnea as well as offer more top tips to help you get a good night’s rest.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that causes your breathing to stop and start multiple times each night.
Affecting an estimated 22 million Americans, the condition actually takes three forms.
1. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
Central Sleep Apnea is a relatively rare condition affecting some 0.9% of people with men more likely to suffer.
The condition occurs when your brain doesn’t send the right signals to your breathing muscles, causing an apnea episode.
CSA is often caused by other conditions like heart failure and stroke, which means the best form of treatment is usually to take care of the other conditions first, though changing your sleep position can also help.
2. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
The most prevalent type of sleep apnea, OSA affects 3% – 7% of men and 2% to 5% of women, with experts suggesting that as many as 80% of cases may remain undiagnosed.
If you live with Obstructive Sleep Apnea, your upper airway will become blocked multiple times throughout the evening which makes breathing difficult and sometimes stops airflow altogether.
In severe cases, these episodes could occur as many as 30 times an hour, though even if you don’t have that many, it can still cause you to wake up multiple times in the night.
3. Complex Sleep Apnea
Sometimes known as “mixed sleep apnea,” people diagnosed with complex sleep apnea live with a combination of both CSA and OSA, meaning that they deal with both airway blockages and a lack of signals sent to the breathing muscles.
The good news is that while medical treatments and Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) masks are typically the most effective ways to treat OSA, simply changing your sleep position can also make a big difference.
That said, choosing the best sleeping position for sleep apnea all depends on the type of apnea you have.
Below, we’ll outline the top three best sleeping positions for obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and the mixed/complex form of the condition.
The Best Sleeping Positions for Sleep Apnea
Lying on your back and side are often considered the two best overall sleeping positions that provide the most benefits, and the same is certainly true when it comes to sleep apnea.
Keep in mind, however, that exactly which position you go for, and how you lie down in that position is likely going to be determined by whether you live with OSA, CSA, or complex apnea.
1. Left-Hand Side
Lying on your left-hand side is the best sleeping position for obstructive sleep apnea.
Research shows us that left-side sleeping can help to reduce a person’s score on the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI), a scale that measures the severity of the condition as well as reducing sleep apnea snoring.
The best part is that sleeping on your left side can also help you to sleep better if you also suffer from other conditions such as back pain.
2. Sleeping on Your Right-Hand Side
If you struggle to sleep on your left-hand side, don’t worry too much about switching over to your right-hand side as this will still have a positive impact on your ability to sleep well.
While left-sleeping is preferred, sleeping on either side can help to alleviate some of the causes of sleep apnea symptoms such as gastroesophageal reflux diseases (GERD).
How to Sleep on Your Side with Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
With many other sleeping conditions, side-sleepers are often advised to bend their knees somewhat and place a pillow in between them to help keep their spine’s proper position throughout their sleep.
With OSA, however, it’s actually best to avoid bending your knees or curling up into the fetal position as this can trigger that bothersome acid reflux.
Instead, try stretching out to use your lungs at full capacity and help oxygen flow through your body more easily.
You’ll also find it helpful to use a higher pillow that keeps your head and neck in alignment with the rest of your body to avoid getting neck pain while you sleep.
3. On Your Stomach
Stomach sleeping is a position that’s usually best to avoid for most conditions, but for OSA, it’s the next best thing to sleeping on your side.
In 2014, a small study found that stomach sleeping (what experts call “the prone position”) has a positive effect on reducing the severity of the condition and improving oxygen flow throughout the body.
This position is also well-known for helping to reduce snoring.
The reason it works so well is that it puts natural gravity to work in pulling the tongue, as well as the tissues in your mouth and throat forward.
This, in turn, helps to prevent them from blocking your airway and reduces apnea episodes.
How to Sleep on Your Stomach for Sleep Apnea?
If you decide to adopt this position, the best approach is to lie flat and avoid blocking your nose with the pillow as this will make it harder to breathe.
Speaking of pillows, it’s a good idea to use a thin pillow in order to prevent your neck from arching upwards and causing pain while you sleep.
You can even buy specialist pillows that are purpose-made to help stomach sleepers avoid that strain on the neck.
Why You Should Avoid Sleeping on Your Back With Sleep Apnea?
Sleeping on your back is usually regarded as one of the best ways to get a comfortable night of restorative rest, but when it comes to sleep apnea conditions, the opposite is true.
Research studies show us that obstructive sleep apnea episodes are commonly triggered by sleeping in the “supine body position,” better known to you and us as on your back.
This is all because sleeping on your back means that gravity works against you, pulling your tongue and mouth tissues down over your airway and creating the kind of blockage that leads to an apnea episode.
So if you really do want to start sleeping better with sleep apnea, getting away from sleeping on your back may be the game changer you need.
There’s also evidence that avoiding back sleeping can prove beneficial for CSA too.
In 2011, experts found that sleeping in the lateral position (on your side) was far more effective at reducing the severity of central sleep apnea and improving sleep quality than sleeping on your back.
If You Have to Sleep on Your Back
If you’re recovering from an injury or find that you just can’t get comfortable on your side or stomach, the best option is to prop yourself up in a reclining position with the head as elevated as possible.
What you’re trying to achieve here is getting that all-important gravity on your side again so that it pulls the tissues away from the airway rather than towards it.
With your head elevated, the chance of an obstruction is severely lessened.
How to Sleep Better With Sleep Apnea? – A few Do’s and Don’ts
Switching to a side or stomach position is a great start when it comes to improving the quality of sleep you get with sleep apnea, however it’s far from the only step you can take.
To further reduce those apnea episodes further, consider the following suggestions:
Do: Improve Your Eating and Exercise Habits
Being overweight is a common cause of sleep apnea and certainly doesn’t help make the condition any easier.
So, to give yourself the best fighting chance of getting a good night’s sleep, it might be worth paying attention to your diet and exercise habits.
Eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and lean proteins not only aids weight loss, but also provides a number of other important health benefits such as boosting your energy levels and immune system.
Meanwhile, upping your exercise levels and getting active (even if it’s only a walk around the block) can help you shed the pounds and start to improve your apnea.
Don’t: Drink Alcohol Before Bed
Drinking alcohol is high on our list of the top things you should never do before bed.
Alcohol can make sleep apnea, and snoring in particular, much worse. It’s also well-known for disrupting sleep patterns and severely impacting quality of sleep.
So, as relaxing as that pre-bed glass of red may be, it may be a good idea to switch to a herbal tea instead.
Do: Get the Right Pillow
Never underestimate what a difference the right kind of pillow can make to your quality of sleep.
If you sleep on your side, look for a high, thick pillow that allows your neck to align with your ears, shoulders, and hips. This keeps your body’s natural alignment and can be beneficial in forcing gravity to pull your tongue away from your airway.
If you sleep on your stomach, you’ll want to go for a thinner pillow. Again, this is to keep your body in alignment, it also helps to prevent neck pain and keep your airway clear.
Don’t: Let the Air Dry Out
If you have dry air in your room, that can irritate the respiratory system.
Just as you would do if you were struggling to sleep with a stuffy nose, grab a humidifier to add moisture to the air which will open the airways, minimize congestion, and improve your breathing.
Frequently Asked Questions About Sleeping With Sleep Apnea
Can sleeping sitting up help with sleep apnea?
Yes, sleeping with your head as elevated as possible helps to prevent the airway blockages which cause a sleep apnea episode.
What makes sleep apnea worse?
Sleeping on your back can make obstructive sleep apnea worse, but so too can being overweight, drinking alcohol, and even taking some prescription medications.
Central sleep apnea is usually the symptom of a bigger issue such as heart failure and may get worse as the condition gets worse.
Does sleeping on your back make sleep apnea worse?
Yes. Sleeping on your back pulls the tissues in your mouth and throat towards the airway, creating a blockage which, in turn, creates an apnea episode.
If you must sleep on your back, do so with your head elevated to pull those tissues away from the airway.
Choosing the Best Sleep Position for Sleep Apnea: A Final Piece of Advice
If you’ve read this entire guide, you should be walking away with all the knowledge you need to start enjoying more peaceful sleep despite living with sleep apnea.
You know, for example, that while sleeping on your side is the best sleep position for both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea, sleeping on your stomach proves just as helpful for OSA.
You’ve also taken a few helpful suggestions to improve your sleep above and beyond adopting a different position.
However, if there’s one last thing we’d like you to take away from this guide, it’s that simply switching up your sleeping position is no substitute for consulting a medical professional about your condition.
If you’re undiagnosed, a healthcare provider will be able to determine the type of apnea you have (OSA or CSA), the severity of it, and the best way to treat it.
Most often, they may recommend a combination of lifestyle changes and the use of a CPAP mask.
If that’s the case for you, our guide to the different CPAP mask types may be helpful. For more advice and guidance, check out our comprehensive guide to sleep apnea.