Supine position related obstructive sleep apnea in adults: pathogenesis and treatment

Sleep Med Rev. 2014 Feb;18(1):7-17. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2013.01.005. Epub 2013 May 10.


The most striking feature of obstructive respiratory events is that they are at their most severe and frequent in the supine sleeping position: indeed, more than half of all obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) patients can be classified as supine related OSA. Existing evidence points to supine related OSA being attributable to unfavorable airway geometry, reduced lung volume, and an inability of airway dilator muscles to adequately compensate as the airway collapses. The role of arousal threshold and ventilatory control instability in the supine position has however yet to be defined. Crucially, few physiological studies have examined patients in the lateral and supine positions, so there is little information to elucidate how breathing stability is affected by sleep posture. The mechanisms of supine related OSA can be overcome by the use of continuous positive airway pressure. There are conflicting data on the utility of oral appliances, while the effectiveness of weight loss and nasal expiratory resistance remains unclear. Avoidance of the supine posture is efficacious, but long term compliance data and well powered randomized controlled trials are lacking. The treatment of supine related OSA remains largely ignored in major clinical guidelines. Supine OSA is the dominant phenotype of the OSA syndrome. This review explains why the supine position so favors upper airway collapse and presents the available data on the management of patients with supine related OSA.

Keywords: Apnea; Continuous positive airway pressure; Review; Sleep; Sleep apnea syndromes; Sleep-disordered breathing; Supine position.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure
  • Humans
  • Lung / physiopathology
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / etiology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / therapy
  • Supine Position* / physiology