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Can't Breathe While Lying Down

By Kelly Smith ; Updated July 27, 2017

Orthopnea is a condition in which a person finds he can’t breathe for short periods or has difficulty breathing while lying down. It may cause you to suddenly wake up in the middle of the night. It’s considered an abnormal condition; and some causes are cardiac and respiratory system disorders including sleep apnea, panic disorder, emphysema, pneumonia and congestive heart failure. The first steps to relieving your orthopnea is to discover what is causing it and treat your condition.

Orthopnea Caused by Sleep Apnea

  1. Stop orthopnea by finding a solution to sleep apnea. If you snore loud, wake up a great deal at night and feel tired everyday, you may have sleep apnea. Obstructive apnea occurs when the soft tissue in the back of your throat relaxes while you sleep at night and blocks your airway. Another kind of sleep apnea happens when the brain doesn’t signal correctly to the muscles that control breathing. You experience short periods in which you stop breathing while trying to sleep.

  2. Attend a sleep clinic to determine if you have sleep apnea and how severe it may be. According to one site, you may experience these pauses in breathing while sleeping from 10 to 20 seconds and hundreds of times during one night’s sleep. If untreated, you can experience serious health problems besides orthopnea from sleep apnea such as heart disease and stroke.

  3. Make lifestyle changes. If your sleep apnea is not that severe, a doctor may tell you to lose weight, quit smoking and use an aid to sleep on your side.

  4. Sleep with a Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure machine. Wear it while you are sleeping at night and it will keep your breathing passages open. You will most likely be prescribed a CPAP machine if you have a moderate to severe case of sleep apnea.

  5. Get surgery done. Your doctor may determine you are extreme and you need your tonsils or polyps removed because they are blocking your throat and causing the sleep apnea and breathing problems.

Orthopnea Caused by Panic Disorder

  1. Treat your orthopnea by treating your panic disorder if you have one. You suddenly become overwhelmed by anxiety, fear or both when you have a panic disorder and you find you suddenly can't breathe while you're laying down. Your panic disorder could be a direct result of stress and anxiety sometimes as a result of big changes happening in your life.

  2. Attend cognitive behavioral therapy with a trained therapist or physician. You will change your way of thinking and behavior toward the root of your panic attacks.

  3. Learn ways to control your breathing through relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga.

Orthopnea Caused by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

  1. Lay down to see if you have a hard time breathing. The orthopnea could be caused by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two forms of COPD, which is a lung disease that is most commonly caused by smoking.

  2. Go to a doctor to get diagnosed for your breathing problems by taking lung function tests if you think this is what is causing your orthopnea.

  3. Go through rehabilitation with a counselor who will help you with exercise, nutrition and counseling to improve your condition.

  4. Take inhalers, antibiotics and oxygen therapy at home prescribed by your physician.

Orthopnea Caused by Congestive Heart Failure

  1. Sit up and lay back down to see if you feel a difference in your breathing or lack of. You can experience orthopnea if you have congestive heart failure. This condition is a result of when the heart fails to pump oxygen-rich blood through your body.

  2. Feel and look at your extremities to see if you are experiencing swelling of the hands, feet or ankles. Notice if you are experiencing intolerance to exercise you were used to in the past. Go to a physician immediately for these symptoms.

  3. Talk to a cardiologist about the various treatments for this serious condition such as a heart transplant or coronary bypass surgery.

  4. Get a medical device implant, such as a ventricular assist device. According to the Mayo Clinic, "surgeons may implant a VAD into your abdomen and attach it to your heart. These mechanical heart pumps can be used either as a 'bridge' to heart transplant or as permanent therapy for people who aren't candidates for a transplant."

  5. Make lifestyle changes such as avoiding or limiting alcohol and caffeine. Get yourself on a low-sodium diet and exercise. Take medications associated with your condition. Get a list of medications from your doctor that can treat your congestive heart failure and do research on them to make the best decision for you.

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