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Is There a Best Sleeping Position for Breathing Problems?

COPD Basics

May 19, 2023

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Photography by Cavan Images/Getty Images

Photography by Cavan Images/Getty Images

by Jenna Fletcher

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Medically Reviewed by:

Nick Villalobos, MD

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•••••

by Jenna Fletcher

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Nick Villalobos, MD

•••••

•••••

If breathing problems like COPD or apnea affect your sleep, an elevated or side-sleeping position may help. But there are additional ways to improve your sleep.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of conditions that cause trouble breathing and blocked airways. Living with COPD can make sleeping more difficult. You may also experience other conditions that impair sleep and breathing, like sleep apnea or reflux.

You may find that changing your sleeping position can help improve your ability to breathe and get some much-needed rest.

Continue reading to learn more about sleeping positions and other methods to improve sleep.

Is there a best position for sleeping with breathing problems?

There’s not a solid agreement about the best sleeping position. But much of the evidence points to avoiding sleeping on your back if you have breathing problems, especially COPD.

While back sleeping is great for keeping your spine relaxed and aligned, it can compress the airways, leading to snoring and apnea.

On the other hand, sleeping either on your side or with your head and chest elevated can take pressure off your airways and help improve your breathing.

In a small 2015 study that included 30 people with obstructive sleep apnea and heart failure, researchers found that positioning the upper body at a 45-degree angle significantly helped relieve the participants’ symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.

But no matter how you sleep, your sleeping position will only do so much. You need to work with a doctor to treat any underlying health conditions, which in turn can help you get better rest.

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Sleeping on your back

In general, if you have COPD or other breathing issues, sleeping on your back is not the best option. It puts extra pressure on your airways, which can cause issues with breathing.

If you have obstructive sleep apnea, experts recommend not sleeping flat on your back. Your tongue falls further back into the throat when lying flat, which causes extended breathing pauses and worsening snoring.

If you have to sleep on your back, you may find that using a pillow to prop up your head may help.

Sleeping on your left or right side

You may prefer side sleeping. In fact, a 2017 study suggests side sleeping is the predominant sleeping position. Side sleeping may also reduce issues that lead to sleep apnea and snoring.

If you find sleeping on your side helps alleviate your COPD symptoms or other breathing issues, you may consider placing a pillow between your legs to support your back better. You can also use a full-body pillow for the same effect.

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Sleeping on your stomach

Sleeping on your stomach may be another option. In a small 2015 study with 32 people with sleep apnea, researchers found that sleeping on the stomach shows promise for helping improve apnea symptoms and sleep duration. However, not everyone will have the same results.

If you want to try sleeping on your stomach, consider using a thin pillow under your head and placing a pillow under your pelvis. This extra support can help protect your neck and back by keeping your spine neutral.

Sleeping with your head and torso elevated

An elevated sleeping position may be the best option for people with COPD and other breathing issues. Researchers are actively researching this.

You can try an elevated sleeping position by placing your upper body and head at an angle with either pillows or an adjustable mattress.

You may also be able to place towels or other objects under the head of your mattress to achieve similar results.

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Other ways to improve sleep when you have breathing problems

Changing your sleeping position will only solve part of your problem and provide minimal relief. You need to make sure you follow your doctor’s recommendations for any underlying health conditions, such as COPD or sleep apnea.

You can take additional steps to improve your sleep hygiene, which may help you get better rest. Sleep hygiene refers to healthy habits that help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

To improve your sleep hygiene, you can try one or more of the following steps:

  • Avoid drinking alcohol before bedtime.
  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day.
  • Aim to get 7–8 hours of sleep each night.
  • If you don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet activity until you feel sleepy again.
  • Limit exposure to bright light close to bedtime.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Avoid consuming caffeine in the late afternoon and evening.
  • Make your bedroom quiet and relaxing.
  • Keep your room at a comfortable, cool temperature.
  • Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
  • Avoid large meals before bedtime.
  • Exercise regularly and maintain a nutritious, balanced diet.
  • Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime.

Takeaway

If you’re looking for a sleeping position to relieve breathing issues, your best bet is sleeping with your head elevated or sleeping on your side. Stomach sleeping may also help. In general, avoid lying flat on your back.

In addition to sleeping position, be sure to follow your doctor’s treatment plan. You can also take steps to improve your sleep hygiene.

Medically reviewed on May 19, 2023

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About the author

Jenna Fletcher

Jenna Fletcher is a freelance writer and content creator. She writes extensively about health and wellness. As a mother of one stillborn twin, she has a personal interest in writing about overcoming grief and postpartum depression and anxiety, and reducing the stigma surrounding child loss and mental healthcare. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Muhlenberg College.

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