When It Might Be Better for Your Health to Sleep in a Recliner

For most of us, the only time we sleep in a reclined position is when we fall asleep while watching television or when we’re crammed on an airplane. For thousands of years, lying on a bed, mat, or even the floor has been the sleeping position of choice.

Lying down to sleep makes the most sense for our anatomy. Some four-legged animals like zebras and elephants sleep standing up, but because we only have two legs it would be more difficult for us to balance while unconscious.

Lying down also slows our heart rate and allows our spines to decompress after a day of standing and sitting.

Our ancient ancestors didn’t have the option to sleep in chairs — but if they did, would there be any benefit?

In some situations, sleeping while reclined may be better for your health than sleeping lying down. In certain situations, however, you may want to avoid it.

Sleeping in a recliner keeps your trunk upright and your airways open. Going to bed in a recliner may be a better option than sleeping in a bed in several situations.

Does it help symptoms of acid reflux?

Your lower esophageal sphincter is a muscle at the end of your esophagus that acts as a gateway between your esophagus and stomach.

For most people, this valve remains shut when you’re digesting food. However, if you have acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), this muscle doesn’t close completely and stomach acid can back up into your esophagus.

The burning sensation caused by this backup of acid is known as heartburn.

Many people experience heartburn at night because when you lie down, gravity stops pushing your stomach contents away from your esophagus. Sleeping in a reclined position may help ease heartburn by keeping your body in a more upright position.

In a study in 2012, researchers compared the symptoms of people with nocturnal acid reflex in two conditions.

On the first day of the study, the people slept in a normal lying position. On the next 6 nights, they slept with their head elevated by a 20-centimeter high block.

Out of the people who finished the study, 65 percent had a decrease in their number of sleep disturbances after elevating their heads.

Does it reduce symptoms of sleep apnea?

The most common type of sleep apnea is known as obstructive sleep apnea. During this condition, the muscles in your throat become relaxed and block your airways. It often leads to snoring, abrupt awakenings during the night, and sleepiness during the day.

About 60 percent of people with obstructive sleep apnea also have GERD. It’s thought that obstructive sleep apnea increases pressure in your chest cavity that makes acid reflux more likely.

Elevating your head while sleeping may help ease and manage symptoms of sleep apnea.

In a 2017 study, researchers examined the effects of a mild amount of head elevation on people with obstructive sleep apnea. The researchers found that a 7.5-degree elevation significantly improved symptoms without affecting sleep quality.

The study also mentions that two older studies published in 1986 and 1997 found that sleeping at 30 degrees and 60 degrees also improved sleep apnea symptoms. These angles are more similar to the positions of a reclining chair.

Does it help if you’re pregnant?

Getting adequate sleep when you’re pregnant is even more important than usual. However, many pregnant women are at a heightened risk of developing problems that disrupt sleep, such as:

  • GERD
  • obstructive sleep apnea
  • back pain

It’s not recommended that women in their second or third trimesters sleep on their back because the weight of the fetus can compress a vein called the inferior vena cava, which returns blood to your heart from your lower body.

This compression can lead to high blood pressure and poor circulation to the fetus.

Most doctors recommend sleeping on your side when you’re pregnant.

Sleeping on your left side is often considered ideal since it takes the pressure off your liver. If you find sleeping on your side uncomfortable, sleeping in a recliner can be an alternative.

Does it relieve back pain?

Some people with back pain find that getting in and out of a reclining chair is easier than getting in and out of bed.

If you do sleep in a reclining chair, you may want to put a pillow behind your lower back for support.

Sleeping in a recliner after back surgery

Sleeping in a reclining chair might be more comfortable if you find it difficult to get into bed after surgery.

Sitting in a reclined position is less stressful for your back than sitting in an upright chair. However, it’s a good idea to make sure that your recliner offers adequate back support so you’re not sitting with a curved spine and putting more stress on your back.

Sleeping in a recliner is generally safe. However, it may increase your risk of developing several complications.

Breathing problems

If your upper back is hunched over while sleeping it can block the flow of air in your lungs.

A reclined position may also cause blood congestion in your lungs and reduce the amount of oxygen you’re able to breathe in.

If you have lung problems, you may want to consult a doctor before regularly sleeping in a recliner.

Joint stiffness

When you sleep in a recliner, your knees and hips remain bent throughout the night. Over time, this can lead to tight hips, calves, and hamstrings, and may negatively affect your posture.

Tight muscles may also increase your risk of falling.

Deep vein thrombosis

Having your joints bent and motionless for hours each night may increase your chances of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

DVT is a serious blood clot in one of your deep veins that can be potentially life threatening. It usually occurs in your legs but can also form elsewhere.

Wearing compression socks may help you reduce your chances of developing DVT.

Impaired circulation

Sitting with your knees bent for a prolonged period can impair the function of the blood vessels in your lower body.

In particular, it may block blood flow in the artery behind your knee called the popliteal artery. Keeping your legs straight when sleeping in a recliner may be better for your circulation than keeping your knees bent.

When sleeping in a recliner, it’s a good idea to make sure you have everything you need to get comfortable in advance to prevent waking up throughout the night.

Here are some ways you can improve your sleep:

  • If your chair is made of leather, you may want to put a sheet over it to keep from sweating.
  • Make sure you have enough blankets to stay warm throughout the night.
  • If the headrest is hard, you may want to use a pillow.
  • You may want to put a pillow behind your neck and lower back for additional support.
  • You might want to either sleep with your legs supported in front of you or wear compression socks to prevent blood pooling in your feet.

Sleeping in a recliner is generally safe. If you find it comfortable, you can sleep in a recliner with little risk.

People with sleep apnea, GERD, or back pain may find they get a better night’s sleep in a recliner than a bed.

To make sure you get a comfortable night’s sleep, try to bring enough blankets to keep you warm through the night and use pillows to support your back and neck.

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