Sleep Apnea 101

Best Sleeping Positions for Sleep Apnea

We all have a favorite sleep position—the way we feel most comfortable and let our body sink into sleep. Many people need only a soft pillow and their favorite sleep position to fall asleep in seconds. That said, most of us probably haven’t given much thought to how our sleep position affects our health or our body over time. We probably think of our sleep position simply as a preference or a decision that improves our comfort. But it’s so much more.

Believe it or not, sleep positions have a huge impact on how we breathe, and our favorite sleep position can actually improve or exacerbate sleep apnea.

Here are the four most common sleep positions and how they rate as the best sleeping position for sleep apnea:

Sleep Position #1: Left-Side Sleeping

Side sleeping is the general recommendation, according to the Sleep Better Council, because it helps alleviate issues like insomnia and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) which can both contribute negatively to sleep apnea. And since the quality of sleep is as important as the quantity of sleep, it’s important to choose a sleep position that allows for our best possible rest. And left-side sleeping is the recommendation.

Specifically, sleeping on the left side is highly recommended, because it allows for the best blood flow and creates little to no resistance for breathing conditions. If you want to become a left-side sleeper, start by finding a good, firm pillow that can support your neck and back. And with a little will-power, you can make it happen.

One additional note: People who have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure should check with their doctors before choosing this sleep position because left-side sleeping is generally discouraged as it can cause discomfort or add unnecessary stress on the heart.

Sleep Apnea Rating: Side sleeping is rated #1 on this list.

Sleep Position #2: Right-Side Sleeping

Since side sleeping is the general recommendation, sleeping on the left side, specifically, is highly recommended. But for those who cannot sleep on the left side for one reason or another, right-side sleeping is also a good choice. It reduces the likelihood of snoring and promotes good air and blood flow throughout the body.

Note: Studies have found that right-side sleeping can aggravate symptoms of reflux because it can relax the lower esophageal sphincter. So if you struggle with acid reflux, talk to your doctor before sleeping on your right side.

Sometimes people prefer to sleep in the fetal position, which is essentially side sleeping with the knees brought up and the back curved forward. While sleeping in the fetal position is not typically a threat to sleep apnea, it can create other issues with the neck or back, especially as we get older. If you prefer to sleep in the fetal position, consider staying on your side but stretching out a little bit. Or consider putting a pillow between your knees to allow for additional comfort and good back and neck support.

You may find that this is a healthier and more pleasant alternative.

Sleep Apnea Rating: Right-Side sleeping is rated #2 on this list.

Sleep Position #3: Prone (stomach) Sleeping

Stomach sleeping is a popular sleep choice and not the worst one on the list as it relates to sleep apnea. Stomach sleeping works with gravity, because it pulls the tongue and soft tissue forward, eliminating airway obstructions and lessening the likelihood for snoring. However, it is common for a stomach sleeper to bury his or her face too far in the pillow or to allow the pillow to cover some or most of the mouth, which can actually work against good breathing and sleep apnea.

Bottom line: The fewer the obstructions, the better.

Stomach sleeping can also put additional, unnecessary stress on the neck, which can create a host of issues that affect good health and rest. Stomach sleeping is not a bad decision, but if you choose to sleep that way, be sure you make safe decisions with regard to your pillow and your posture.

Sleep Apnea Rating: Prone (stomach) sleeping is the third-highest sleeping recommendation on this list.

Sleep Position #4: Supine (back) Sleeping

Back sleeping is the least recommended position as it causes the sleeper to be more likely to snore and twice as likely to experience sleep apnea.

Back sleeping works against gravity and causes the soft tissues in the upper airway (including the adenoids, the tongue, and the uvula) to crowd and create upper airway resistance. The term for this type of obstruction is positional obstructive sleep apnea. Simply put, when the tongue relaxes back, our sleep apnea gets worse. Many people who struggle with sleep apnea have historically chosen back sleeping as their sleep position of choice. The best thing you can do is avoid back sleeping and train yourself to sleep in one of the other positions on this list.

If you are currently a back sleeper, get a better pillow, and try experimenting with side sleeping to see what it can do for your rest.

As a bonus, you may find that it is more comfortable over time!

Sleep Apnea Rating: Supine sleeping is not generally recommended and receives the lowest rating.

Get a good night’s sleep.

How we sleep is as important as how much sleep we get. Both quantity and quality have a direct impact on our health and quality of life. And our sleep position has a lot to do with it. The good news: If you don’t like your current sleep position, you’re not stuck with it. With a little education and effort, you can pursue positional therapy for sleep apnea and train yourself to sleep differently.

Bottom line: We take sleep seriously and want to help you get some good rest.

Check out our positional sleep apnea treatment options here.

Courtney aims to make learning about sleep apnea and sleep apnea therapies as enjoyable as possible. Contact us if you’re interested in sharing your story or have a topic you’d like CPAP.com to investigate! 

5 Comments

  1. Hi Courtney, thanks for putting this information together, can you clarify the 2 statements below, or was this just an editing issue and the rating in number 1 below was meant to be “Supine” and not “Side”

    1. Sleep Apnea Rating: Side sleeping is not generally recommended and receives the lowest rating.

    2. Since side sleeping is the general recommendation, sleeping on the left side, specifically, is highly recommended. But for those who cannot sleep on the left side for one reason or another, right-side sleeping is also a good choice.

    • Hi Michael, thank you so much for bringing this error to our attention. You are correct! Side, should be Supine. I have forwarded the update request to our Marketing Department.

      For further questions, or concerns, please reach us at: 800-356-5221.

      Have a wonderful day!

  2. Is the photo with Sleep Position #1: Left-Side Sleeping illustrating left- or right-side-sleeping?

  3. Sleep Apnea has been a long time problem for me. I absolutely have to sleep on the right side, since I have a medical implant on the left side for my seizures. Life’s been hard for me.

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