Best Position for Sleep Apnea

Do you suffer from sleep apnea? You may not know, and your partner may be the first to notice. People with this condition may gasp, snore, choke, or cough during sleep. There are easy things you can do to alleviate the symptoms of sleep apnea. A change in sleep posture and position can reduce the number of breathing interruptions you experience during the night.

What is Sleep Apnea?

The American Medical Association (AMA) estimates that 30 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, but only 6 million have been diagnosed. Sleep apnea results from disordered breathing patterns that prevent the body from getting adequate oxygen. This oxygen drop causes the heart to work harder, and the brain to signal the body to wake and take in more air.


Sleep Apnea is categorized into two types: Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and Central Sleep Apnea (CSA), with the former being most common. A person suffering from OSA has weakened muscles surrounding their airways which can constrict or collapse them and disrupt breathing. Medical conditions such as obesity and lung disease, and risk behaviors like smoking can predispose a person to OSA. CSA, where breathing interruptions are caused by failed messages between the brain and the muscles that control respiration, effects only about 1% of people with sleep apnea.


Elevate the Head

Modifying sleep posture to elevate the head is a simple measure toward better sleep for people who experience the effects of OSA. According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine in 2017, head-of-bed elevation (HOBE), “significantly improves OSA severity without compromising the sleep architecture.” HOBE reduces the collapsibility of the upper airways and allows them to remain open and unobstructed. Elevating the head can also alleviate the symptoms associated with other conditions including gastroesophageal reflux, mouth breathing, heart-related illnesses, and congestion.


There are a number of ways to achieve HOBE.

  • Wedge pillow-A wedge pillow can elevate the upper body 30 to 45 degrees. Position the wedge at the top of the bed and use it with your regular pillow for neck support.
  • Bed Wedge- Bed or mattress wedges come in a few heights to elevate the upper body 4 to 8 inches. Place a bed wedge under the mattress to create an incline.
  • Bed risers-Elevate the head 6 to 9 inches by using bed risers. This inexpensive method raises the bed with the risers under the two feet at the top of the bed frame.
  • Support pillow-Studies show that even a 10-degree elevation can help, so a supportive pillow that cradles the head and maintains the curve of the cervical spine is a step in the right direction.


Adjust Your Sleep Position

Sleep position can make a huge difference to a person experiencing OSA. Most people default to whatever position is most comfortable for them when they are asleep, but mindfulness and effort toward changes that keep the airways open should be the goal.



Side Sleep

Sleep experts recommend side sleeping, also known as the fetal position, for improving the symptoms associated with OSA. Side sleeping sustains clear airways and reduces snoring. When sleeping in the fetal position, it is critical to maintain a neutral spine and to support the head and neck, which is why pillow choice is key.


Back Sleep

Back sleep can be great for cervical spine alignment, but not necessarily for combating OSA. Loud snoring is an indicator that this position is not working for you. Once again, neck support is crucial, because sleeping in a supine position with without sustaining the neck or elevating the head will allow the airways to collapse during sleep. Therefore, back sleep works best in conjunction with HOBE, which will improve OSA symptoms.


If your mornings start with a dry mouth and a headache and your days are filled with exhaustion, brain fog, and irritability, you should question your sleep quality. Do not ignore obvious nighttime signs such as loud snoring, fitful sleep, and frequent urination. Sleep apnea is serious, and depending on the severity of your condition, adopting an OSA-friendly sleep position and posture may not be enough. The science behind sleeping in the correct position, is a great resource prior to the next considerations... You may need additional assistance from a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, for example. Only you and your doctor can find the right treatment plan for you.  


Sleep apnea is one of many sleep disorders that effects people globally. While the U.S. is among the countries that get the most sleep per night, studies show that those hours are increasingly less restful. Talking to a health care provider and changing sleep habits to include HOBE with back or side sleep can help air passages to remain open, breath to flow freely, and sleep to be sound.

Back to blog