Positional Therapy: What Sleeping Position Means for You

You might not think of it, but your sleeping position can mean a lot for your sleep quality. If you deal with a sleeping disorder especially, a sleeping position could make all the difference for you. Problems like sleep apnea can be troublesome to treat, considering all of the options there are and how you respond in particular to a treatment. Positional therapy, however, is one thing you can do from home that might make your symptoms a bit more easy to handle. 

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a form of sleep-disordered breathing. It’s one of the more common sleep disorders. There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. 

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is more prevalent than its counterpart. This type of sleep apnea involves direct blockage of the upper airway. This happens when muscles in the mouth and throat relax so much during sleep that they collapse, blocking the airway. Obstruction can also be caused by insufficient motor tone of the tongue, where it falls to the back of the throat and blocks the upper airway. These blockages cause sleep disruption; you might wake up gasping or choking, or just 

Obstructive sleep apnea is a growing issue in the United States as obesity rates continue to rise. Obesity is directly linked to obstructive sleep apnea because the more fat there is around the neck, the more likely the muscles and soft tissues will collapse. 

Central sleep apnea is related to the brain; it happens when the brain doesn’t send the right signals to the muscles that control breathing. This causes your breathing to stop and start up again many times throughout a sleep cycle and disrupts proper sleep. 

Both types of sleep apnea are indicated by these symptoms:

  • Frequent awakenings throughout the night
  • Gasping, snorting, or choking during sleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep or falling asleep
  • Morning headaches 
  • Sore throat or dry mouth after waking up
  • Irritability and mood changes
  • Difficulty concentrating and focusing throughout the day
  • Excessive daytime fatigue

The most common differentiator between obstructive and central sleep apnea is the presence of snoring. While snoring can show up with central sleep apnea, most snoring cases indicate a blockage of the airway; therefore, obstructive sleep apnea. 

Treatments for Sleep Apnea 

In the past, CPAP therapy was the primary treatment option for sleep apnea, no matter the type or severity. But in recent years, many issues with the CPAP have arisen. While a CPAP can certainly alleviate symptoms of sleep apnea and might be a better option for central sleep apnea treatment, many patients find it invasive and uncomfortable. 

In recent years, a more comfortable and convenient treatment has been developed: oral appliance therapy. This therapy involves wearing an oral appliance that fits similar to a sports mouth guard during sleep. The appliance positions the lower jaw forward, preventing the muscles from collapsing in the back of the throat. This treatment is safe, non-invasive and easy to maintain. 

Another way to treat sleep apnea is through surgery. The most common type of surgery to treat sleep apnea is the UPPP surgery. This surgery removes any excess tissues that are in the upper airway that might cause blockage. This surgery has been found to help tremendously with snoring, but in some cases, sleep apnea persists. Removal of tonsils and adenoids are also a way to help treat sleep apnea, specifically in children. Soft palate surgery is also a possible treatment option. 

While treating sleep apnea requires professional care, there are still some things you can do at home that can alleviate symptoms.

Lifestyle Changes You Can Make 

Just like with any health condition, making healthy lifestyle changes can help manage the illness. Here’s some things you can do to help manage sleep apnea:

  1. Lose Weight

As mentioned earlier, obesity is directly linked to sleep apnea. Losing extra weight is one thing you can do that can relieve sleep apnea symptoms significantly. Making a plan to safely lose weight is a good first step. This can be done with or without a professional. Cutting processed sugars, keeping hydrated, and exercising can help you achieve your weight loss goals. 

2. Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine

Alcohol is a stimulant that can disrupt your sleep. It also makes those muscles and tissues in the back of your throat collapse easier. Avoiding alcohol altogether can make a big difference in managing sleep apnea, but at the very least try not to consume it any later than 3 hours before bedtime. Additionally, caffeine is another stimulant that can exacerbate sleep apnea symptoms. You don’t have to give up your beloved cup of coffee in the morning, but it’s recommended that you avoid caffeine after 2 pm. 

3. Set a Sleeping Schedule

Your body has an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. This clock helps your body recognize when you should be awake and when you should sleep. When you go to bed at different times each night and/or wake up at different times in the morning, you’re disrupting that internal clock. You might find it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, or you may feel overtired during the day — no matter how much sleep you got. Set a sleep schedule that works best for you and your schedule, where you go to bed and wake up roughly at the same time each day. Keep in mind that adults should be getting a minimum of 7 hours of sleep to function properly. 

4. Quit Smoking

Tobacco causes inflammation in your lungs, airways, and throat. It also increases your fluid retention in those areas. This exacerbates sleep apnea symptoms. It’s important to quit this habit in order to manage sleep apnea more effectively. 

5. Use Essential Oils

Essential oils are a great addition for treating sleep apnea. They’re safe and easy to use and have many uses. They can help with anxiety, inflammation, sleep, and more. If you’re struggling to fall asleep, try using some lavender on your pillow or diffuse it by your bed. Essential oils are not regulated by the FDA, so be sure to do your research on quality before buying from a brand. We recommend Doterra. 

6. Exercise Regularly

Exercise can affect your duration and quality of sleep. It’s also good to help you achieve your weight loss goals. Try not to exercise too close to bedtime, as it might prevent you from falling asleep easily. But having a workout schedule in the mornings or early afternoons can help boost your mood, alleviate sleep apnea symptoms, and leave you feeling more energized.

7. Change Your Sleeping Position

It’s simple, but it matters! Sleeping on your back makes it more likely for an obstruction of the airway to occur. Turning over to your side or adjusting your sleep position (Positional Therapy) could help keep the airways clear. In fact, some people only experience sleep apnea when sleeping on their back, so this simple adjustment could make a world of difference! 

What is Positional Therapy? 

Positional therapy is a behavioral strategy that is intended to help alleviate sleep apnea symptoms. Different sleeping positions have different effects on the quality and duration of your sleep. 

Positional therapy could include wearing a device around the waist to keep you on your side, using a device with “vibro-tactile” technology that alerts your body to change sleeping positions, or using a special pillow designed to keep your body in a specific position. 

How Sleep Positions Affect Sleep Quality 

You might have a sleeping position already set that you know and love. What you might not realize, though, is that your sleeping position is impacting how well you sleep. It’s good to have this information so you can adjust your position accordingly. 

Here are the most common positions known for sleeping and how they positively or negatively impact your sleep:

  1. Fetal

Sleeping curled up on your side is one of the most common sleeping positions. It’s particularly favored by women, especially those who are pregnant. 

Overall, this position is a healthy one. It allows for the spine to rest in its natural alignment and, according to research, your brain clears waste that leads to neurological diseases better in this position. For pregnant women, lying on the left side in this position allows for smooth blood flow to the fetus. 

If you’re curled up too tight, though, your lungs might be restricted. Make sure to stretch out in a more relaxed position when sleeping this way. 

  1. Starfish

You might think of this position in terms of a sleeping baby — sprawled out on the back, legs apart, arms bent by the head. 

This position can help with issues like acid reflux or heartburn, but being on your back can increase snoring and sleep apnea symptoms. It might also cause back pain.

You can make this position a bit easier on the body by adding a pillow underneath the knees to support the spine. 

  1. Freefall

This is where you sleep on your stomach, usually hugging a pillow or your arms tucked under your head.

Sleeping on your stomach requires your neck to be turned at an awkward angle, so while it may feel comfortable at first, it can actually cause strain on the neck. It could also lead to some serious lower back pain, as the spine curves inwards. It’s also more disruptive to sleep; you’re more likely to toss and turn in your sleep. 

This is definitely the least beneficial sleeping position and isn’t recommended, but if you must sleep on your stomach, try using a soft pillow positioned under your forehead that allows you to keep your head forward. 

  1. Soldier

Lying on your back, arms by your side, seems a bit stiff. While it might be comfortable if you are a back sleeper, this position, like any position on your back, is one that could exacerbate sleep apnea symptoms and increase snoring. Sleeping on your back without proper support for the spine can also cause back pain. 

On the other hand, this position is great for alleviating acid reflux.

  1. Log

You might find this position weird: lying on your side with your arms down. But 15% of people actually prefer to sleep in this position, and it’s actually very beneficial to your health. It’s good for sleep apnea symptoms and reduced neck and back pain. To reduce pressure on the hips, place a pillow in between the knees. 

What You Can Do 

If you’re looking to alleviate sleep apnea symptoms, there’s a few things you can do from home.  

Consider changing your sleeping position based on your needs. Make sure you’re being patient. It can be difficult to change a sleeping position, especially if you have slept in the same position for a long period of time, but it’s possible! You can try a few different positions and see what feels the most comfortable and allows for the best night’s rest.

In addition to changing your sleeping position, you want to make sure you’re comfortable in your environment. Optimizing your bedroom for a good night’s sleep can be very helpful. 

Replacing older mattresses and pillows for newer ones is a good first step. When choosing pillows, look for proper support to alleviate neck and back pain and allow the spine to rest in its natural alignment. 

You can also wash sheets frequently and vacuum both the mattress and the carpet to rid the room of dust mites, dander, and other irritants. This will help with congestion and allergies that might disrupt sleep. Make sure to keep the room dark at night and open the curtains or use an alarm clock that wakes you up with natural light in the morning to support your internal clock. Finally, make sure your room is at a comfortable temperature; cooler bedrooms make for better sleep.

If you want some extra help with positional therapy, we recommend trying out a positional pillow designed specifically for alleviating sleep disorder symptoms, snoring, and back or neck pain. 

The Best Positional Pillows 

You can use positional pillows with or without other sleep apnea treatments, but this is a good start in treating mild to moderate cases of sleep apnea and adjusting to a more efficient sleeping position.

These are the top four pillows for sleep apnea, all sleep tested and rated accordingly.

  1. Sleep Innovations Memory Foam Contour Pillow

This pillow provides enhanced spine support with high-quality memory foam that adapts to the shape and size of your head and neck. It offers two levels of contour that you can choose from to help keep your airway clear. The design ensures you wake up without stiffness, aches, or soreness.

Image result for sleep innovations contour memory foam pillow

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  1. FitPlus Premium Bed Wedge Pillow

This pillow is great for people who prefer sleeping on their back, but struggle with sleep apnea or snoring. It supports the entire body with memory and polyurethane foam. It’s designed with a slope that helps alleviate pain areas and keep airways free of blockage. It also has a washable cover that regulates temperature. 

Image result for fitplus premium wedge pillow

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  1. Visco Love Celliant Sleep Therapeutic Wellness Memory Foam Pillow

This pillow is designed to stay cool and contours to your body shape for maximum comfort and alignment. It is built with hypoallergenic visco-elastic memory foam. The pillow has air channels to regulate temperature and is designed to relieve aches and pains. 

Image result for visco love celliant sleep therapeutic wellness pillow

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  1. Snuggle-Pedic Ultra-Luxury Bamboo Shredded Memory Foam Pillow

This pillow may not have a unique shape, but it is completely adaptable to your sleeping position and is designed to help relieve tension on the neck. It’s hypoallergenic and toxin free, filled with shredded memory foam, and has a cover made of bamboo viscose, polyester, and lycra. It’s machine washable and available in 3 different sizes, and the company offers a 20-year warranty along with a 120-night sleep trial. 

Image result for snuggle pedic ultra luxury bamboo shredded memory foam pillow

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There are plenty of other options out there, but these are just a few highly-rated ones. Be sure to do your research and see about trials before buying a pillow. Our team at Advanced Sleep Centers of Virginia can also help you find a pillow that works best for you. 

Try a couple of my favorites here:

ComfiCasa Memory foam

Karidge Memory Foam Pillow

Still Struggling? 

If you’re experiencing sleep apnea symptoms, chronic snoring, or other issues with your sleep, don’t let it control your life. We have a highly-trained team of sleep specialists dedicated to your health. We make the process of diagnosing and treating sleep disorders, chronic snoring, and more, as easy as possible with at-home sleep studies, online scheduling, and a secure telemedicine portal where you can speak with a professional at any time!

Interested in positional therapy? Struggling with sleep apnea? We’re here to help you get the best night’s sleep possible! You can schedule an appointment with us online or call us at (703) 689-2480 for a free consultation. Keep in mind you may be asked to use the app Snorelab to record data of your snoring patterns before arriving to your first appointment. 

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