How a Pillow Could Help Your Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea causes frequent awakenings every night as you sleep. Also termed arousals, they can be so brief you may not even be aware of them. However, these arousals can occur between 30 -100+ times every hour throughout the night, seriously impacting the quality of your life.

Left untreated, the resulting sleep degradation can increase your risk from serious health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

The position in which you sleep could also be exacerbating your sleep apnea and snoring by making it harder to breathe. Some people only snore and obstruct in the supine (i.e. back) position. Positional therapy involves changing your sleeping position to improve your breathing by sleeping off your back or with the head turned to the side.

In one six-month study, patients using positional therapy showed a significant improvement in their sleep quality and daytime alertness — and a decrease in snoring loudness. Researchers noted that “positional therapy appears to be a valuable form of therapy mainly for some older aged positional OSA patients.”

Do You Need a Sleep Test?

Sleeping on your back can make your sleep apnea worse. As you sleep, gravity pulls the tongue and soft tissues of the throat down, blocking the upper airway.

“Apneas” or pauses in breathing, occur when the airway becomes blocked overnight — and sleeping on your back can increase this risk.

Your doctor may recommend a home sleep test to evaluate how you sleep and whether your position could be worsening your sleep apnea.

Although sleeping on your side is usually best for breathing, it does not automatically mean your breathing is totally normalized in this position.

The testing device records the percentage of the night you spend in each position and whether or not your having abnormal events.

The test measures how often the airways are blocked while you’re sleeping, providing an indication of the severity of the condition. If the index number indicates you have less events when sleeping on your side, positional therapy may be recommended.

Treatment Options

While continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is one of the principal treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may also want to address your sleep position.

If you tend to sleep on your back you may be advised to try methods which elevate your head when sleeping. An adjustable bed or a recliner can help tilt your head and help prevent your tongue being pulled down and blocking your airway.

A positional pillow is another option to help your sleep position. Wedge-shaped pillows are designed to allow you to sleep on your back while your head remains in a slightly elevated position. These pillows are made from foam, which provides a firmer material. The tilted angle of the wedge pillow helps prevent the upper airway from collapsing due to gravity as would be the case when lying completely flat on your back.

Sleeping on Your Side

Having the right pillow can also benefit people who sleep on their sides. Often people will bunch pillows to help them feel more comfortable, which can also help support the head and neck. Some sleep apnea sufferers may use a large body-style pillow to ensure they maintain their position throughout the night.

It is worth taking some time to consider and find the right positional pillow for you. We are all different and a regular sleep pillow does not always suit our needs, particularly when you have a sleeping disorder such as sleep apnea. As side sleeping is the most common of the sleeping positions, a pillow designed for side sleeping may be beneficial.

When you use or stack regular pillows, they can be too soft and may not provide the elevation required to support your side sleeping position. This is magnified as you turn during the night, as you will have to adjust once more to find a comfortable position.

A pillow made for side sleeping such as the Oxygen Pillow from our online store can prevent this. The advantage of such a side pillow is that you can personalize the important features like height and firmness to have a pillow which works for you as you sleep. If you suffer with sleep apnea and are a side sleeper you may want to consider a side sleeping pillow.

Further Positional Therapy Methods

As sleeping on your side is more likely to prevent your airway becoming blocked compared to sleeping on your back, there are some ways to encourage side sleeping. Again, by working with your doctor or sleep specialist you can find a solution which works best for you. These methods include:

  • a night shift device, such as the  Philips NightBalance which brings a technological approach to the issue, and involves a soft, adjustable strap.  worn comfortably around the chest and delivers gentle vibrations that prompt you to shift off your back without disturbing your sleep.
  • the tennis ball t-shirt approach – an effective, if initially bizarre sounding treatment plan, where you sew a tennis ball into the back of the t-shirt you wear in bed to help promote sleeping on your side.
  • a large foam block or roller, which is worn at night to stop you sleeping on your back. This is a more expensive alternative to a tennis ball sewn in to the t-shirt, and one where you may need a prescription.

Sleep apnea is a debilitating disorder which increases your risk of serious health complications, as well as putting you more at risk of traffic accidents due to extreme fatigue. Lifestyle changes including amending your sleeping habits and sleeping position can play a role in treating the disorder.

If you sleep on your back your doctor may recommend positional therapy to try and get you sleeping on your side.

Around 54 million Americans are estimated to suffer from sleep apnea, with 30 million of those with moderate to severe sleep apnea, but it is treatable once diagnosed. There are many ways to help your sleep position and encourage better sleep once diagnosed. From adjustable beds, a personalized sleep pillow or techniques to prevent you rolling on to your back, they are all aimed at improving the quality of your sleep and reducing the level of your snoring, one of the main symptoms of sleep apnea.

SleepQuest can help!


Clinical validation: positional therapy for OSA: