Sleep Chairs: An Overview

The benefits, risks, and what to look for when considering a sleep chair.

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Sleep Chairs May Help With Apnea, some surgical recovery, and standing after sleep

The term “sleep chair” is used for a range of products, promising better rest or relief through sleeping in a low reclining chair. It looks to address a few issues tied to spending time in a bed: sleep angle can be tied to a few conditions such as apnea, upright sleep can help with some types of surgery recovery, and sleep chairs can help older individuals and people with mobility issues in standing up gently. Let’s look at each of these claims, and the products that say they solve them.

Can You Sleep Well in a Chair?

It looks like it, as long as the chair is mostly flat. A small study measuring brain activity and sleep posture found that using a chair designed for sleep at 50 degrees from the vertical (see picture) had the same sleep quality as sleeping flat. Normal recliners (at ~40 degrees) had more awake activity, and armchair sleep (~20 degrees) had awake activity and poor efficiency. For a better night’s rest, aim to have the angle of your chair in the green zone, between 50 degrees and completely horozontal.

Chair Sleeping and Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing starts and stops repeatedly during the night. It can be a serious medical condition that should be checked by your doctor, and it often causes frequent disruptions to sleep. If you’re wondering if you may have apnea, the STOP Questionnaire, also called “STOP-BANG,” is a good place to start. It’s quick, only 8 questions long, and has shown to be an effective first tool in assessing risk, especially for moderate to severe patients.  

Can sleeping in a chair help with sleep apnea? Yes, for some people. Obstructive sleep apnea (where the airway is partially or fully blocked), can be reduced, or even eliminated, by sitting at an angle, but whether or not it helps depends on the shape of your neck and airway. Surprisingly, not a lot of studies have been done on sitting on and apnea, and what has been published tends to have a pretty small sample size. This means that guidelines for figuring out if sleep-sitting may work for you are limited, and you may want to try sleeping in a normal recliner before investing in a full-on sleep chair.

In a 2013 posture summary, more general studies did seem to agree that sleeping on your back (supine) in a bed makes apnea worse than other positions, and sleeping on your stomach (prone) may or may not help. If you’re having trouble sleeping and can’t find a comfortable position, chair sleep can give you more options for better positions that still reduce apnea issues.  

Chair Sleep and Recovery

The recovery period after surgery can be long, painful, and generally unpleasant. One of the postoperative goals is to help patients get to a point where they no longer need round-the-clock hospital care and can safety return home. For some procedures, especially laparoscopic surgery (surgery that using small incisions and fiberoptic instruments for diagnosis or treatment), recovery position can make a big difference in postoperative care.

 In a 2002 study, patients who recovered in a reclining chair after laparoscopic surgery experienced greater comfort and were ready to go home sooner than patients who recovered in a traditional bed. They also had less nausea, severe pain, and bathroom issues, even though the reclining angle that they used was similar to the angle chosen by the patients in the hospital bed. A 2018 trial on laparoscopic gallbladder removal also found that recliner use led to a slightly shorter average hospital stay. This study, which was conducted over a course of 6 years, was conducted as part of a program to promote outpatient care and a fast, safe transition home.

Lift Chairs and Mobility

What is a Lift Chair?

A lift chair, also called a medical recovery chair, looks like a normal recliner but has a couple of extra features. Unlike normal recliners, a lift chair is powered – it’s connected to an outlet or battery, rather than using a manual handle to control the chair’s movement. This makes lifts easy to for people with limited arm strength, limited mobility, or recovering from shoulder/other upper body surgery. Lift chairs also do what the name implies: they lift, or move forward, to help the user go from sitting to standing with less leg strength and virtually no pushing. This lift is powered in the same way as the reclining function, without physical push/pull handles.

Most lift chairs are also designed to recline for close to flat for sleep, falling within the “good sleep angle” for uninterrupted rest. If you have trouble moving from a seated to standing position or have an injury that prevents arm assistance in rising, lift chairs can be a good option for to reduce sleep stress and morning discomfort.

Are Lift Chairs Effective?

They can be, but the effectiveness of any particular chair depends on the size and dimensions of the chair, and the size of the person using it. Most lift chairs are designed for people 5’3” to 6’2” who weigh less than 300lbs, and the recommended measuring guidelines are provided by the manufacturers, rather than a medical standard. There are chairs designed for people outside of these size restrictions (see below, and our “Lift and Sleep Chair Comparison” article for more details) but be sure to check your chair’s rating to make sure it’s right for you.

If you find a chair that fits your size, the lift feature can make a huge difference.

Types of Sleep and Lift Chairs

There are a range of sleep and lift chairs that help with reclining, standing, and sleep. This includes large brands like Ashely Furniture and Madison Home, as well as smaller, specialty manufacturers. Check out our article comparing lift chairs for a full rundown.

Read the Research

The Effects of Posture on Obstructive Sleep Apnea; R. Douglas McEvoy , David J. Sharp , and Andrew T. Thornton; American Review of Respiratory Disease, Received: June 25, 1985

Influence of back angle on the quality of sleep in seats; A. N. NICHOLSON & BARBARA M. STONE; Journal of Ergonomics, Pages 1033-1041 | Received 22 Aug 1986, Accepted 12 Feb 1987, Published online: 31 May 2007

The effect of posture on airway caliber with the sleep-apnea/hypopnea syndrome.; S E Martin , I Marshall , and N J Douglas; American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Vol. 152, No. 2 | Aug 01, 1995


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