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Sleep Apnea and Sleeping Positions: Which is Best (or Worst)?

When it’s time for bed, what position do you put yourself in before you nod off?

Everyone has a preference, whether it’s on your stomach, in a supine position on your back, on your side or even curled up with an extra pillow. Normally, this is just a personal choice and you think nothing of it, however it can have a significant impact on your quality of sleep, especially for people who suffer from breathing abnormalities.

So which position is the best to help get a better night’s sleep when you have sleep apnea?

Breathing when Horizontal

Lying down creates different breathing conditions for your body to when you are vertically upright. When you’re on your feet or sitting, your airways are pointing downward, leaving breathing and airflow fairly unrestricted.

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However, the minute you get under the covers, your body is forced to breathe in a horizontal position, meaning that gravity is now working against your airways.

Think you have breathing abnormalities or trouble sleeping? You may have sleep apnea. 
Here is an online test you can take to find out.

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Sleep apnea and snoring can occur when the muscles in your upper airway relax causing the air to become restricted either through your nose or throat.

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As the air is breathed in and out during the night, the surrounding tissue vibrates, causing you to snore. If these muscles relax even further, they can trigger sleep apnea because the complete blockage of the airway stops breathing altogether, forcing you to wake and choke to clear it. This may happen many times a night impacting the quality of your sleep.

If you want to read more about snoring and its effects check out our article, Snoring - should I seek help?

The Supine Sleeping Position

Supine sleeping position

Lying on your back is, therefore, intuitively the worst position for someone who snores or suffers from sleep apnea because, physiologically, gravitational force increases the tendency for the jaw, the tongue and soft palate to drop back toward the throat, which narrows the airways and can lead to breathing difficulties.

The Prone Sleeping Position

Prone sleeping positionSleeping on your stomach may seem like the alternative to the gravity issue, as now, the downward force pulls the tongue and palate forward. While this is true to an extent, your mouth and nose end up being either blocked or impaired by your pillow, or your neck has to be twisted to the side to maintain breathing, all of which are counter-productive in clearing the airways to avoid snoring and sleep apnea.

The Lateral Sleeping Position

Lateral sleeping positionResearch has suggested that positioning your body to lie on your side appears to be the most ideal for people who snore and suffer from sleep apnea1, as the airways are more stable and less likely to collapse or restrict air.

However, this position doesn’t always come naturally to some people. It’s common for people to start on their side, and fall onto their back, where snoring and sleep apnea is at its worst.

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The answer to this may be using the right pillow.

A contoured pillow or one with ‘memory-foam’ which holds its shape can help to guide your body and hold your head in the right position to keep your body aligned in the optimal lateral position. For more tips on best sleeping practices, check out our article on Practicing Good Sleep Hygiene

How a Free Sleep Assessment can Help You

If you are experiencing problems sleeping, you may wish to consider undertaking a free online sleep assessment to better understand how to improve your restful state and your overall health. The assessment asks you a series of simple questions designed to help you uncover the cause, and the results will be conveniently sent to you via an email.

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Think you're experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea?

If you are having problems sleeping, then it might be worth taking our sleep assessment to determine if you are at risk of sleep apnea

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References:

[1] Sleep Med Rev. 2014 Feb;18(1):7-17. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2013.01.005. Epub 2013 May 10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23669094. Accessed April 2018

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