Transparency Disclosure — We may receive a referral fee for products purchased through the links on our site…Read More.


A Guide to Sleeping Upright

Last Updated on November 28, 2023

Written by Jill Zwarensteyn

Sleeping upright is typically easier said than done. If you cringe at the thought of snoozing on an airplane or a long car ride, you’re not alone.

Unless you’re in a luxurious first-class cabin or bus with lie-down seats, sleeping upright may seem impossible.

Even if you are able to sleep in an upright position, does that mean you should? In this article, we’ll examine whether sleeping while sitting up affects your health. This guide includes tips, potential risks, and some of the best products you can use for sleeping upright.

How to Sleep Sitting Up

Whether it’s of your own accord or current circumstances, there are ways to comfortably sleep sitting up and minimize your risk of developing pain.

1. Find a good chair

For those who sleep sitting up, the right chair should help you avoid discomfort. However, there are a couple of features to keep in mind:

  • Make sure the seat has adequate lumbar support to keep your lower back in alignment
  • Choose an ergonomic chair designed to provide maximum comfort

2. Find a good position

Not only should you practice good posture while awake, but posture is important while sleeping as well— especially if you’re resting in a seated position.

To achieve the best posture while sleeping sitting up, follow these steps:

  1. Put your feet flat on the floor, square with your knees
  2. Roll your shoulders back
  3. Position yourself so that your feet, hips, and knees are all facing forward

The goal here is to keep your body in proper alignment.

3. Avoid leaning on objects

Although you are leaning on a chair while seated, it’s the other nearby objects that you should avoid leaning on.

Some travelers will request a window seat in order to lean on the window when they sleep, or drivers who need a nap break at a rest stop use their steering wheel as a substitute pillow.

Leaning on objects while seated might seem comfortable at the moment, but this throws your spine out of alignment, which could lead to muscle strain and pain later on.

4. Use a good neck pillow

If you enjoy traveling, you’ve likely encountered people carrying U-shaped neck pillows; these clever cushions are enormously beneficial for posture. These pillows are designed to alleviate neck pain by providing support to keep your head upright and comfortable as you sleep.

View Our Guide: Best Pillows for Traveling

You don’t have to wait for your next trip to the airport to invest in a good neck support pillow as there are many high-quality neck pillows available for purchase online.

5. Try a wedge pillow

For those who plan to sleep sitting up while at home, consider purchasing a well-made wedge pillow. These types of pillows typically come in a triangular shape and are available in different sizes.

They offer sleepers a casual incline so that you can sleep with your top half elevated. However, they can also be placed in a fully upright position for watching television, reading, or in this case, sleeping.

Check out the Helix Wedge Pillow – it’s one of our favorites!

Potential Risks of Sleeping Upright

Sleeping sitting up is not necessarily harmful to your health. People with certain medical conditions or those who’ve recently had surgery may be required to sleep in this position; while others— like travelers, for example— may not have another option. Some folks may enjoy sleeping upright, especially while parked in front of a TV in a comfortable reclining chair.

In certain cultures, sleeping upright is considered a sign of productivity. For example, workers in Japan may take naps while sitting motionless at their desks, a practice known as Inemuri1, which became prevalent during the economic growth period of the 1970s and 1980s when employees worked longer, busier days. Today, it is viewed as a sign that the person is working so hard they’re not getting enough sleep and rest, and napping while seated allows them to be alert at any moment.

Furthermore, there is research that suggests sleeping with your back in a reclined posture is better than being fully upright. In a 2018 study2, scientists found that participants who slept with their back reclined at a 40-degree angle experienced healthier sleep than those who rested upright at 20 degrees.

In some cases, sleeping upright is better than getting no rest at all. However, there are some possible side effects to be aware of.

Allergy impact

Common allergy symptoms like nasal congestion, runny nose, or shortness of breath can keep you up at night, causing you to lose precious sleep. In these cases, resting while sitting up could have a positive impact, like when you’re battling nighttime congestion; this is because sitting upright is known to help drain your nasal passages, making breathing— and sleeping— much easier.

Additionally, this could prove useful if you’re dealing with congestion from a common cold.

Neck pain problems

Sleeping upright is fine for temporary instances, but it shouldn’t be done on a regular basis. During sleep, the muscles weaken, including the neck, which means as you fall asleep, your head will inevitably drop to the side.

According to health experts, muscle strains are a primary cause of neck pain3, but they go on to say that a good sleep position should help prevent this from happening.

Related: Best Mattress for Neck Pain

3. Avoid leaning on objects

Although you are leaning on a chair while seated, it’s the other nearby objects that you should avoid leaning on.

Some travelers will request a window seat in order to lean on the window when they sleep, or drivers who need a nap break at a rest stop use their steering wheel as a substitute pillow.

Leaning on objects while seated might seem comfortable at the moment, but this throws your spine out of alignment, which could lead to muscle strain and pain later on.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it possible to sleep standing up?

Not really. Throughout the night, we pass through multiple cycles of sleep, either categorized as Non-REM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) or REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. There are a total of four Non-REM stages followed by one REM stage. However, we typically only dream during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase.
During REM sleep, most of your muscles are in a state of paralysis, which means your legs would not be able to hold you upright, so sleeping while standing is not a common practice.

An exception is sleepwalking, which is a known disorder that causes people to stand and walk while unconscious, and usually occurs during the non-REM cycle. A 2012 study4 from Stanford University’s School of Medicine found that about 3.6 percent of adults in the United States are prone to sleepwalking, a higher percentage than experts previously expected.

Several animals, however, are equipped to sleep while standing. Horses, for example, have a unique system of ligaments and tendons known as a stay apparatus5, which allows them to sleep standing up. Being able to sleep standing up is helpful for these animals because they can quickly get away if a predator approaches them.

Why do I wake up from sleeping sitting up?

There may be times when you fall asleep lying down but later on sit up in your sleep. Waking up seated could be the result of parasomnias6, which are unusual experiences that occur while you are asleep and disrupt your rest. There are different types of parasomnias, including confusional arousals, sleepwalking, REM behavior disorder (RBD), night terrors, nightmares, sleep talking, jerking, teeth grinding, and nocturnal seizures.

The most common forms of parasomnia are talking while asleep, sleepwalking, night terrors, and nightmares. Both adults and children can experience them, but they are more common in kids.

What is deep vein thrombosis?

Another vital fact to consider when sleeping sitting up is that it can increase your risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis7 (DVT), which is when a blood clot forms in a limb. This condition can occur when you experience uninterrupted sitting for long periods at a time, like on airplanes.

While most blood clots may form in areas such as your legs, they can become particularly dangerous if they travel to your lungs, constricting the blood flow there. This is known as a pulmonary embolism (PE).

Symptoms8 of DVT normally appear only in the affected area, and they include swelling, pain, red or discolored skin, and warmth. Pulmonary embolism warning signs are sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, feeling lightheaded or fainting, rapid pulse and breathing, and coughing up blood. People who experience DVT may also develop a complication known as postphlebitic syndrome, which is when the restricted blood flow from the clot causes damage to the veins in the area.

Experts say you should consult with your doctor if you notice signs of DVT and seek immediate medical care if you experience PE symptoms.

The good news is that measures can be taken to reduce your chances of developing Deep Vein Thrombosis. For example, passengers traveling on long flights should stand up intermittently, drink plenty of fluids, and wear loose-fitting clothing. Experts also suggest wearing special compression stockings9; however, we advise checking with your doctor first, as they’re not recommended for individuals with certain medical conditions.

Jill Zwarensteyn

Jill Zwarensteyn

Editor

About Author

Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Combination Sleeper

References:

  1. Bouthier, Bente. “Sleep In Different Cultures”. Moment of Science. 2018.
  2. Roach, Gregory D., et al. “Flat-out napping: The quantity and quality of sleep obtained in a seat during the daytime increase as the angle of recline of the seat increases”. The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research. 2018.
  3. “Neck pain”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified August 25, 2022. 
  4. Brandt, Michelle. “Sleepwalking more prevalent among U.S. adults than previously suspected, researcher says”. Stanford Medicine. 2012.
  5. Schuurman, Simon O., Kersten, Wim., Weijs, Wim A. “The equine hind limb is actively stabilized during standing”. Journal of Anatomy. 2003.
  6. “Parasomnias & Disruptive Sleep Disorders”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified April 29, 2021. 
  7. “Is it dangerous to sleep sitting up?”. Harvard Health. 2019.
  8. “Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified June 11, 2022. 
  9. “Preventing Deep Vein Thrombosis”. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Last modifed December 2022.