Ask Dr. Lisa: I Want to Sleep on my Back, Despite My Sleep Apnea

In each edition of Ask Dr. Lisa, our medical sleep expert, Dr. Lisa Shives, answers your questions about why you can’t get the sleep you need. In this installment, Dr. Lisa answers a question from a woman who wants to sleep on her back, despite being told that sleeping on her side or stomach will alleviate symptoms of sleep apnea.

Sue Fitzpatrick asks: I would love for you to recommend a pillow for me.  I am a 55-year-old female. I have sleep apnea if I sleep on my back, but I desperately want to learn to sleep on my back because sleeping on my back helps me to not clench/grind my teeth. And I must admit, for vanity reasons, I wish to sleep on my back because my face has deep creases from sleeping on my side.

I did participate in an overnite sleep study and was told that I only stop breathing if I am on my back. Still, I would love to find a way to sleep on my back. Continuing to breath at night would be nice, too. The tech would not prescribe a sleep apnea machine because he said I just need to stay off my back at night. I also have a lot of neck pain all day and my neck also hurts a lot as I try to get to sleep on my crummy current pillow.

Dr. Lisa says: I am happy to provide a suggestion on a pillow for you. However, the recommendation to sleep on your side may save your life. Your sleep physician can suggest or provide a positional device that helps people stay off their backs. If you really want to sleep on your back, no problem! With your sleep physician, you should discuss treating your apnea with either a PAP machine, an oral appliance or Provent. Sleep apnea is a very serious condition that is much more worrisome than teeth grinding or wrinkles. It has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and even death

There are a number of good pillows designed for side sleeping that may help you get a good night’s rest and reduce your neck pain, including ones with the SleepBetter name. Your teeth grinding is a problem that can cause health issues as well, but can be alleviated by a mouth guard. You should discuss this with your dentist.

Dr. Shives works with to provide a medical view of sleep issues. She is one of only a few practitioners with a fellowship in Sleep Medicine in addition to board certification by both the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Sleep Medicine.

Learn more about Dr. Lisa Shives by clicking here.