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 sleeping 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, your sleep position has a huge impact on how you breathe, and your favorite sleep position can actually improve or exacerbate your sleep apnea.
How to Sleep with Sleep Apnea
You probably have always had a preferred sleeping position—whether it’s on your stomach, back, or side. But what you may not know is that regardless of if you have mild, moderate, or severe sleep apnea, there is actually such a thing as the best position to sleep in. This is because the different parts of your body that regulate your breathing while you sleep are positioned contingent on how you lay in bed (e.g.: your mouth being inadvertently covered by your pillow if you sleep on your stomach).
If you do take a sleep study test, and it shows that you have one of the three types of sleep apnea, you may need to work with your body to adapt your sleeping position to the one that’s best for your breathing during sleep. If after trying different ways to adjust your sleeping position you are still not able to adapt or get used to it, there are other alternatives to CPAP therapy that may end up working best for managing your sleep apnea without compromising your preferred sleeping position.
But, do you know which sleeping position is best for those with sleep apnea? Read on below as we rank them, starting from the most to the least ideal.
Sleep Position #1: Left-Side Sleeping
You can’t go wrong with side sleeping in general, 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 crucial to choose a sleep position that allows for our best possible rest. For those reasons, left-side sleeping takes the gold.
Specifically, sleeping on your 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 thing worth noting about this position is that 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 for them as it can cause discomfort or add unnecessary stress on the heart.
Sleep Position #2: Right-Side Sleeping
Right or left side side-sleeping actually makes a difference if you have sleep apnea. Right-side sleeping is a good choice as it reduces the likelihood of snoring and promotes good air and blood flow throughout the body.
However, a study has found that right-side sleeping can aggravate symptoms of reflux because it can relax the lower esophageal sphincter. If you struggle with acid reflux, talk to your doctor before sleeping on your right side.
One of the right-side sleeping variants, the fetal position, is actually the most popular sleeping position for Americans. It’s not a threat to sleep apnea, but it can create other issues with your neck or back especially as you get older. If you prefer to sleep in the fetal position, consider staying on your side but stretching out a little bit. Another option is to 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 Position #3: Prone (Stomach) Sleeping
Next on the list in third place is prone (stomach) sleeping. Stomach sleeping works with gravity because it pulls the tongue and soft tissue forward, eliminating airway obstructions and lessening the likelihood of snoring.
It’s not the worst position, but it is common for a stomach sleeper to bury their 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.
Stomach sleeping can also put additional, unnecessary stress on the neck, which can create a host of issues that affect good health and rest. If you choose to sleep this way, be sure you make safe decisions with regard to your pillow and your posture.
Sleep Position #4: Supine (Back) Sleeping
Ending our countdown to the last sleep position for sleep apnea is supine sleeping—or sleeping on your back.
Supine sleeping is not generally recommended and receives the lowest rating. 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!
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Already a left-side sleeper? Congratulations! We hope your CPAP therapy is helping you achieve quality sleep.
How we sleep is as important as how much we sleep. 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 sleeping 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: the fewer the obstructions, the better. We take sleep seriously and want to help you get good rest. If you are not a side sleeper and have sleep apnea, check out our positional sleep apnea treatment options here.
Eric graduated from Texas State University in 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He has worked as a freelance photographer, editor, and writer. Eric is committed to providing the most value possible to CPAP.com readers by creating a highly approachable user experience, with an emphasis on actionable information and thorough research.