Positional therapy for snoring can be an effective treatment for those that snore in certain positions, specifically on their backs.
Snoring is caused by a partial obstruction of soft tissues in the airway including the back of the mouth, throat, tongue, epiglottis, uvula, tonsils, and soft palate. Extra fatty tissue around the neck in someone that’s obese can also play a role.
What Causes Snoring in Most Cases
When we sleep our muscles relax, causing these tissues to also be relaxed. They fall into the airway, partially obstructing the air that is flowing in and out when we breathe. As the air flows through these relaxed tissues, the tissues vibrate and it causes the snoring sound we’re all familiar with.
It’s important to mention that sometimes snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which breathing is actually paused completely for several seconds to minutes at a time. This can lower oxygen levels in the blood and cause the heart to work even harder. If left untreated, OSA can lead to further, more serious health conditions. If you think you may have OSA, you need to see your doctor for a possible sleep study test.
Sometimes OSA only occurs when a person is sleeping in a certain position, usually supine (on the back) (1). For some people, lying flat on their backs causes the tongue to fall back and soft tissues to collapse. This occludes the airway during sleep, causing periods of apnea. This is known as positional obstructive sleep apnea (POSA) and does not occur when lying on the side or stomach (2).
Not everyone that snores has sleep apnea, meaning that not everyone that snores needs to be treated for sleep apnea. But sleep apnea or not, snoring can be a nuisance and there are ways to treat it.
For those that snore while lying supine, training their bodies to sleep in an alternative position can eliminate snoring. This is known as positional therapy (3)
Positional Therapy Options for Snoring Include:
Tennis ball and tee shirt method. This is probably one of the oldest known tricks for keeping you off your back. It’s done by attaching a tennis ball to the back of a tee shirt. The theory behind this method of positional therapy is that the tennis ball will keep you from lying supine. However, this may not be the best solution since the discomfort of rolling onto your back can wake you up and disrupt your sleep.
Pillows or wedges. Some people believe that using pillows or wedges during sleep to prop you up on your side will keep you from rolling onto your back. This may work for some, but many people will move the pillows aside while sleeping, without even realizing it.
Anti-snore backpacks and vests. These are devices that you wear during sleep and act as bumpers to keep you off of your back. Some are worn as backpacks, vests, and belts.
Anti-snore pillows. These are also sometimes known as head position pillows. Some of these pillows are designed for back sleepers and will elevate your head to keep your tongue from falling back, putting less pressure on your airway.
If you sleep on your back because side sleeping is too uncomfortable on your neck, there are pillows made to keep your neck in alignment, making it more comfortable to sleep on your side.
Other pillows are designed with contours or head cradles to keep you on your side and are supposed to prevent you from rolling onto your back.
These pillows may not be the best option for active sleepers, since they may not keep an active sleeper from rolling onto their backs.
Adjustable beds. There are beds available that can elevate you and keep your head up to keep you from snoring. This can be an expensive solution though if you don’t already have one of these beds.
Oral devices. There are anti-snore mouth devices or mouth guards you can wear during sleep that can help alleviate snoring. These devices generally work in two ways.
Mandibular advancement devices (MAD) work by moving the mandible (jaw bone) forward. This can help separate soft tissues in the airway to keep air flowing smoothly.
Tongue stabilizing devices (TSD) work by holding the tongue so it doesn’t fall back into the airway while you’re asleep.
Electronic Treatments for Positional Snoring
Wearable devices. There are a growing number of wearable devices on the market that are designed to monitor your sleep and alert you when you roll onto your back (4).
One type of wearable device uses what’s called vibrotactile feedback. This is a wearable band, sometimes worn on the neck that vibrates when you roll onto your back (5). If you don’t feel the vibrations and roll off from your back, the vibrations gradually become more frequent and more intense until you are no longer sleeping on your back.
Other devices are worn around the head and can even connect to a smartphone app so you’re able to evaluate the quality of your sleep. These devices also use vibrations at an intensity that is right for you so they won’t disrupt your sleep.
If you’re unsure if you snore or not, you may have a partner that knows the answer. If not, there are also wearable devices available that can monitor your sleep and give you an idea of the quality of your sleep and let you know if you snore. There are also smartphone apps that can help track your sleep. Some of these help you monitor your sleep quality and others monitor sound to help you know if you snore.
Snoring alone isn’t usually harmful to your health, but can be bothersome to someone sleeping next to you. If you do snore only while lying on your back, positional therapy for snoring may resolve the issue.
If you snore and think you may have sleep apnea, consult with your doctor to see if you have it so you’re able to get on the right treatment plan for you.
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