What Position Should You Sleep In When You Have Back Pain?
Does your spine secretly hate you?
39% of Americans say they’ve suffered from back pain in the past 3 months. That statistic is expected to get even worse in the coming years, thanks to a combination of desk-bound work and general inactivity. Night-time should bring relief, but for most back pain sufferers the discomfort doesn’t end when they lie down. And after eight hours of sleep, mornings can leave them stiff, sore and wondering why their back pain is even worse.
In general, when people experience more pain at night and in the morning, it’s because their spine isn’t moving, there’s subsequently less blood flow to the area, and the soft tissues surrounding the joints in the spine become stiff and immobile.
Because not all back problems are the same, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how to sleep better if you suffer from back pain. There are, however, techniques that will relieve pressure on your spine by keeping it in a neutral alignment – which will help you sleep easier and wake up with less pain and stiffness.
If You’re a Stomach Sleeper
Bad news if you’re one of the 16% of adults that sleep on their stomach – sleeping in the prone position is generally the worst position if you suffer from back or neck pain.
Why? For one, it’s like you’re looking over your shoulder for 8 hours because your head needs to be twisted to one side or the other to enable you to breathe. Two, it also causes hyperextension of the lumbar spine, which jams spinal facet joints together and can exacerbate low back pain.
And even though it can reduce snoring and sleep apnea, stomach sleeping is so detrimental to your spine that pretty much every sleep specialist recommends that patients try to transition to sleeping on their sides instead. But breaking old habits – especially sleep habits – is hard. Here’s some tips to help.
Shift your position when possible: If you can, try to fall asleep on your back or side. But if you wake up in the middle of the night on your stomach, get in the habit of flipping over. This will be uncomfortable at first, but you’ll quickly get used to the feeling.
Use a body pillow: Stomach sleepers often like the comfort of having their whole body on the mattress. To transition to sleeping on your side, try using a body pillow. This will help you doze off comfortably while keeping you from moving onto your stomach.
Sleep on a memory foam pillow: If you want to get used to sleeping on your back or side, consider purchasing a memory foam pillow. The contours of the memory foam will support your neck and maintain its natural curves.
Switching up your sleeping position won’t happen overnight; it’ll take some persistence. However, with time and practice, your body will learn to relax in another sleeping pose.
What if you’ve slept on your stomach your entire life and absolutely can’t get to sleep any other way? Use a thin pillow or no pillow at all. The flatter the pillow, the less angled your head and neck will be. And put a pillow under your abdomen and pelvis – it’ll help keep your back in a more neutral position and take pressure off your spine.
If You’re a Back Sleeper
Sleeping on your back is generally considered one of the best sleeping positions because it minimizes the amount of twisting being put into your spine and pelvis. However, if you’re dealing with discogenic pain (pain caused by inflammation of the intervertebral discs) this position can cause pain because you’re flattening out the lumbar lordosis (the natural forward curve of your low back).
To avoid pain while laying on your back, prop a pillow or foam wedge under you knees and lower buttocks. This promotes the normal curve of the lumbar spine and allows the muscles in the lower back to relax. Try to elevate your knees and upper legs two or three inches above your sleeping surface. The pillow-propped position is also great if you have an anteriorly tilted pelvis.
And if you’ve got a smushy old mattress, consider upgrading your ergonomics with a firm(er) mattress to rest your body on – we recommend hybrid mattresses to get the best of both memory foam and coil-spring mattresses.
As for your head, don’t be afraid to be picky about the pillow you sleep on. The wrong type can lead to headaches, neck pain and shoulder pain. Rule of thumb: the pillow shouldn’t be thicker than the distance from your neck to your shoulder. Back-sleepers can exacerbate their pain if their heads are propped up too far forward, which creates increased neck flexion.
If you want to try a special therapeutic pillow designed for back sleepers, we recommend the Pillo-Pedic™ Therapeutic Pillow.
If You’re a Side-Sleeper
Every pregnant woman learns to sleep on their side with a pillow between the knees. But if you’re one of the 74% who sleep on their side, you should do it whether you’re pregnant or not: It keeps the legs in a good neutral position and keeps the top leg from dropping to the mattress and putting the pelvis into a torqued position. It also minimizes neck and lower back pressure points. Be sure to switch sides to balance out your body!
Pillow choice and placement are crucial though. The pillow should be small enough to not feel awkward between your legs, yet big enough to keep you from rolling onto your stomach.
It should also be noted that some of the pillow products meant to help people with back pain sleep better are unhelpful for side-sleepers. We recommend the Escape™ Therapeutic Pillow for side sleepers because it’s equipped with special side panels to support both back and side sleeping positions.
The Bottom Line
If you’re waking up with a stiff and sore back, you’re not alone. But the mornings that you have to roll yourself out of bed shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s important to recognize when something is going on “back there” and how to troubleshoot the situation.
Know someone who’s suffering from back pain? At Ascent Chiropractic we correct problems in the spine using low-force chiropractic techniques combined with the best of physical therapy modalities to get results that are unmatched anywhere. If you’re suffering with back or neck pain, we’d love to help. To make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic, call 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.