Is It Dangerous to Sleep While Sitting Up (Possible Risks)

Sleeping sitting up dangers

Naturally, humans find it difficult to stay awake while sitting on plane seats or car seats for long periods of time. But sometimes, it gets out of our control, and we find ourselves snoozing in that upright position, whether in the car, on the plane, or while  watching TV on a recliner. 

Sleeping in that position, especially when it’s spontaneous, often feels great, but we need to ask ourselves, is it really healthy? 

There are certain situations in which sleeping while sitting is fine, and other ones in which it’s a big no-no. So, should you feel safe having an afternoon nap in your armchair or not? Read ahead to find out! 

Possible Side Effects of Sleeping While Sitting Up

Before getting into your recliner and falling asleep right away, there are some potential negative effects you should take into consideration: 

May Cause Trouble Breathing

Sleeping with the upper back hunched over can reduce and block the airflow in the lungs. This position can potentially also cause the blood in your lungs to become congested, leaving you unable to breathe the same amount of oxygen. 

If there’s a problem with your lungs, it’s better to see a doctor first before sleeping in this kind of position. 

Not The Best Position For Pregnant Women

Sleeping while sitting up is not the best position for pregnant women. In their case, sleeping on the side is a better option. 

The better side to sleep on is generally the left side, although in some cases, it might be the right side, depending on each person’s particular case

Getting enough sleep daily is crucial for your health, especially for pregnant women. Since they’re at more risk of experiencing back pain, chronic acid reflux, and obstructive sleep apnea, these problems disrupt the sleep of pregnant women.

During the second or third  trimester, sleeping on your back isn’t the best position, as there is a vein in your body called the inferior vena cava that can be compressed by the baby’s weight. This vein is responsible for bringing your blood back from your lower body to your heart. If it’s compressed, it can cause your blood pressure to go up and less blood to reach the fetus.

Neck Pain

While sleeping upright is handy for short periods or for those who have problems with allergies, not everyone should do that, and it shouldn’t be your everyday sleeping position. We’re talking here about sleeping in your chair without any pillow stack support.

When you sleep and reach the phase of Rapid Eye Movement (aka REM), the tone of your muscles becomes super low, including your neck, meaning that it’s harder for the body to hold itself in position. As a result of this, your head drops to one side while you sleep, bending your neck in that direction, and that causes neck pain.

Can Cause Stiff Joints

Sleeping upright forces your hips and knees to be bent all night, which can – on the long run – cause calves and tight hips. Your posture may also be negatively affected. Not just that, but muscle tightness can make you fall more often and more easily.

Puts You At Risk of Developing Deep Vein Thrombosis

Sleeping while sitting up can also put you at risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis, which is a formation of blood clots in your deep veins, especially the ones in your legs. 

This happens when you sit for long periods of time. It can cause leg swelling and pain, and it can sometimes have no symptoms at all. But the biggest danger is when the clot reaches your lungs and causes deadly pulmonary embolism, so be careful!

DVT can occur in people who travel a lot and sit for long times on the plane, and that’s why passengers are told to do leg stretches from time to time on long flights. Drinking more water will keep you hydrated and will also help prevent DVT.

If you want to reduce the threat of DVT, another way to do it while sleeping upright on long trips is by reclining the seat you’re sitting in. It’s recommended to recline the seat at a minimum 40° angle, this is suggested by studies to be a healthier way of sleeping than sitting at 20° angle. Although you can’t do that on some flights, you can always stand up and stretch your legs from time to time.

Can Sleeping While Sitting Up Be Good For You? 

While this position can be harmful in several ways, this doesn’t make it an absolute evil. In fact, there are some conditions in which sleeping upright can be handy…

It Helps You Dealing With Back Pains

If you’re suffering from back pain, you may find it easier to sleep in a recliner than in a bed. However, make sure you stack pillows under your lower back for healthier sleep.

This doesn’t mean you should always sleep while sitting up if you have back pains. It’s just a temporary solution to reduce the pain until you treat your back! 

It’s a Good Position if You Suffer From An Allergy

Allergies hit differently from one person to another. Some people can be affected by allergy symptoms so severely that they can’t fall asleep at night. In this case, sleeping while sitting can be a life saver. This is because sitting upright can drain your congestions in both your throat and nose, which improves your breathing and thus your sleep. 

If you have to sleep while sitting to relieve your allergy, we recommend you to rest your head on  a couple of comfortable pillows. But don’t stay in this position for too long, as sleeping upright nonstop puts you at risk of having neck pains, which leads us to the next point…

Sleeping Upright Is Helpful After Certain Surgeries

Sleeping in this position can be a must for recovery from some surgical procedures. If you find yourself struggling to sleep in your bed after undergoing a surgery, sleeping while sitting can make your life easier. 

You should consider using a good neck pillow in this case to minimize the potential neck pain. And if you’re sleeping on a reclining chair, make sure your spine isn’t curved as you sit so the pressure doesn’t worsen any spinal pain.

Bottom Line

Humans spend about a third of their lives sleeping, so a good mattress definitely makes a difference. Sitting up shouldn’t be an everyday sleeping habit of yours, but an occasional sleeping position only when necessary.

So, if you don’t have any excuse, your cozy bed should be your destination every night! 



Dan was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2017 when he was only 32 years old. He has been using a BIPAP machine for his treatment. He hopes to provide a patient's perspective on the sleep apnea experience. Dan lives in Tampa with his girlfriend and 2 dogs.

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