Help me fall asleep on my back without choking on my tongue.
November 2, 2016 11:33 AM   Subscribe

I find it much easier and more comfortable to fall asleep lying on my back than on my side or stomach, but once I actually slip into unconsciousness my tongue falls into the back of my throat and suffocates me, causing me to wake up. Is there anything I can do about this?

I'd like to stop sleeping on my side, because it's hard on my shoulders and lower back and I have to do a lot of tossing and turning before I can get comfortable enough to drift off. Sleeping on my stomach just plain doesn't work. What I really want is to be able to sleep on my back—my body is much more relaxed in that position, and I find it much easier to fall asleep. Problem is, I have a rather large tongue that always seems to fall into the back of my throat as soon as I'm unconscious, causing me to immediately wake up with an unpleasant sensation of suffocation. Obviously, this makes actually sleeping on my back impossible. (Sleeping on my back but with my head flopped off to one side also doesn't work, and isn't very comfortable anyway.)

Is there anything I can do about this? Doing a sleep study and/or getting a CPAP machine or something like that is a total no-go—my current (unrelated) medical bills are impossible as it is and I just. do. not. have. the time, money, or sanity available to embark on another medical snipe hunt right now. What I'm hoping is that there's something simple and cheap that somebody here has had success with in a similar situation. If you know of anything that might help me, please let me know! This is one of those nagging long-term things that I've been living with for years but which I think would make a noticeable difference in my quality of life if I could get it solved. Thanks in advance, as always.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you're not averse to wearing a mouthguard at night, there are many anti-snoring devices <$100 that will hold your tongue in place while you're sleeping.

You didn't ask this, but you should also consider revisiting your mattress situation or considering getting a gel/memory foam topper for your current bed if sleeping on your side is hard on your body.
posted by Karaage at 11:40 AM on November 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

You could try bed lifts. Lifting the head of your bed up several inches can help with a lot of problems. I've used blocks of wood but they also sell risers.
posted by phunniemee at 11:45 AM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I feel you! I can only sleep on my back when I take a nap and often wake up from those choking/coughing on saliva. I've found that sleeping on my side works if I have lots of pillows to arrange strategically.
posted by mareli at 11:50 AM on November 2, 2016

Consider a U-Pillow for more comfortable side-sleeping.
posted by bq at 11:52 AM on November 2, 2016

Try a wedge pillow (random example, not endorsing this particular product).

I use a wedge pillow to help with acid reflux, but I think it would also help keep gravity on your side to tongue-wise.

In my experience it's better if you sleep far enough up on the pillow that you bend at the waist/back, not your neck. If you bend at the neck, it can cause muscle tension in the neck, back, shoulders.
posted by cnidaria at 11:57 AM on November 2, 2016

Maybe a wedge pillow? I used one while recovering from thoracic surgery where I had to sleep on my back. It helped to be elevated.
posted by clone boulevard at 11:58 AM on November 2, 2016

Hah! Cross-posted. Sorry!
posted by clone boulevard at 11:59 AM on November 2, 2016

Nthing a wedge pillow. - I used one when I was pregnant to help reduce heartburn, and found it very comfortable.
posted by insectosaurus at 2:03 PM on November 2, 2016

Well, I've ordered a wedge pillow. I also have heartburn as it happens, so perhaps it will help with both. The Zyppah mouthguard Karaage linked to looks intriguing as well, but I'm not seeing myself spending $89 on it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:35 PM on November 2, 2016

What you are describing is obstructive sleep apnea. A CPAP machine uses air pressure to keep your airway open while you are sleeping. I strongly suggested talking to your doctor and getting a sleep study done, which will let you how many times a night this happens. I don't think it is something to mess around with.

Edit: Sorry, I just noticed that you said you can't afford it. I was able to do a home sleep study, which cost me about $500 and was able to get a prescription from my doctor and bought the machine online for about $900, so you are right it is not cheap. Wishing you the best of luck finding a solution.
posted by katinka-katinka at 6:02 PM on November 2, 2016

Sorry to keep answering what you specifically said you did not want, but there is a list of organizations that can help people with financial hardships get a low-cost machine, $25-100.
posted by katinka-katinka at 6:15 PM on November 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Are you overweight or obese? Losing weight might help. Obesity and obstructive sleep apnea are strongly correlated. I know you probably know this but wanted to mention it because it doesn't come up in your question at all and is such a strong factor.
Technically speaking, it is simple and cheap to lose weight although I realize it might not be easy, or not something you want to/can do right now...just putting it out there.
posted by The Toad at 8:03 PM on November 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

If the mouth guard is a cost issue, you can get one at the drug store that's around $40. I don't know if it would help you, but it might help you consider it.
posted by bendy at 8:12 PM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Things I've used when dealing with sinuses / allergies / stomachaches and such....

1) Lots of pillows against a solidly braced headboard or backing.
2) A bean bag chair or other large squishable object. This works on the floor with a camping mat.
3) Sleeping on the couch with several pillows. The armrest keeps my head up, the sofa backrest keeps my body aligned so that I am halfway between lying on my back and curling on my side.

The trick is to get the whole upper body at an angle, not just the head and neck. A reclining chair just leaves me draped over the armrest.
posted by TrishaU at 10:13 PM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Toad, I am overweight bordering on obese according to BMI guidelines. I left it out of the question because it's something I'm already aware of and working on, but perhaps I should have mentioned that above. Your point is a good one, I'm just already on top of that and was looking more for immediate relief.

My plan for now is to try a wedge pillow and see if that helps. If it doesn't, I'll look into rearranging my bed more dramatically as others suggest, to raise up my entire upper body. I actually have a drug store mouthguard, but it's for bruxism rather than obstructive sleep apnea; I used it when I used to take Adderall, but since stopping it over a year ago I haven't had any bruxism (except occasionally during times of unusual stress) so I haven't really needed it. Perhaps I'll try wearing it to sleep and see if it helps at all; I don't expect it will, but I already have it and it seems unlikely to hurt anything.

Thanks everyone for your great suggestions. I really appreciate it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:19 AM on November 4, 2016

If you're thinking of an oral appliance for osa, one fitted by a dentist is usually recommended vs the cheap over the counter version. the mouthpiece devices are only moderately effective, and the thing needs to actually fit to pull your jaw or tongue forward to work. to be covered by most insurers, a sleep study would be required; i don't know what your insurer would need. a dentist will also tell you if you have huge tonsils or something else fixable. I'd at least check on what a sleep study would cost you out of pocket since you might eat your deductible for other reasons.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:31 PM on November 5, 2016

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