How To Sleep Sitting Up Properly and Protect Your Health

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Upright sleeping 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 swanky first-class cabin or bus with lie-down seats, sleeping upright can 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 informational guide will include the potential problems that could arise, as well as the best quality products for upright sleepers and how to snooze safely while sitting up.

Is It Possible to Sleep Standing Up?

Throughout the night, we pass through multiple cycles of sleep, either categorized as Non-REM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) or REM (Rapids Eye Movement) sleep. There are a total of four Non-REM stages followed by one REM stage. However, and 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 study 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 apparatus, which allows them to rest standing up and have a quick getaway from predators when necessary.

Sleeping Standing Up

How Sleeping in a Sitting Position Affects Your Health

Upright sleeping 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, depending on their circumstances. 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 Inemuri, which became prevalent during the economic growth period of the 1970s and 1980s when employees worked longer, busier days. Today, it’s 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 study, the 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, which we'll go into more detail on further below.

Allergy Impact

Common allergy symptoms like nasal congestion, runny nose, or shortness of breath can keep you up all night, causing you to lose precious sleep. In these cases, resting while sitting in upright position 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 vertically is fine for temporary instances, but it shouldn’t be done on a regular basis. As mentioned earlier, REM sleep causes the muscles to weaken, including the neck. As you fall asleep, your head will inevitably drop to the side.

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

illustration of a person trying to ease neck pain

How to Sleep Upright Comfortably

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

Find a Good Chair

For those who sleep sitting up, the right chair should help you avoid discomfort. Keep in mind, there are several key features to look for.

First, make sure the seat has adequate lumbar support to keep your lower back in alignment. Secondly, choose an ergonomic chair, which is specially designed to provide optimal comfort.

Illustration of a Lady Sleeping on a Chair

Find a Good Sleeping 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, put your feet flat on the floor, square with your knees. Next, roll your shoulders back and position yourself so that your feet, hips, and knees are all facing forward. The goal here is to keep your body in proper alignment.

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.

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, keeping 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.

Try a Wedge Pillow

For those who plan to sleep this way 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.

Illustration of a Lady Sitting on a Plane with a Travel Pillow around Her Neck

Frequently Asked Questions

What is deep vein thrombosis?

Another vital fact to consider when sleeping sitting up is that it can increase your risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis (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 cots 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).

Symptoms 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 stockings; however, we advise checking with your doctor first, as they're not recommended for individuals with certain medical conditions.

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. According to the American Sleep Association, waking up seated could be the result of parasomnias, 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.

Illustration of a woman showing her legs with deep vein thrombosis

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.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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