Is Your Sleeping Position Ruining Your Back?
18 October 2018
Sleeping is such an integral part of the human experience that it seems odd to think there is a wrong way to do it. You may climb into bed doze off in your usual cosy position just fine, but comfort doesn’t necessarily equal good.
Trouble in the lumbar = trouble in the slumber.
If you are sleeping in a position which doesn’t support your spine, you may be causing yourself unnecessary aches and pains. The spine is the pipeline for your nerves, so spinal stress can cause pain just about anywhere in your body – not what you want to wake up to!
Justin from our Clevedon clinic says that “poor sleep posture can not only cause restless sleep, but can strain, shorten, or tighten muscles, which in turn leads to poor support of the spine”. Poor posture when catching the Zs can also lead to back and neck pain, fatigue, sleep apnoea, muscle cramping, impaired circulation, headaches, heartburn, digestive issues, and even premature wrinkles.
So what is the worst sleeping position?
Sorry stomach sleepers – almost every source on sleeping positions unanimously agrees that sleeping on the stomach is “the worst possible position you can sleep in from a musculoskeletal point of view”. Hannah from our Yate clinic’s key piece of advice around sleep posture is that “sleeping on the front is a BIG no-no!”
Whilst stomach sleeping is good for easing snoring, it is bad for pretty much everything else. In this position your core, which is the heaviest part of your body, sinks deeper into the mattress; meanwhile, your head and limbs stay higher on the surface, creating a very unnatural ‘freefall’ position, like a sky diver. This increases the pressure on your muscles, joints and organs. Additionally, “your neck is turned in a way that locks your upper cervical vertebrae, which can cause headaches and neck problems”—yikes!
How can I sleep better?
Ultimately feeling comfortable is going to give you the best night’s sleep, but the most important thing to consider when finding your perfect sleep posture is to keep proper alignment of your spine. The usual advice around spine care is to move and change positions as much as possible, but since you’re literally unconscious overnight this is impossible to regulate. Therefore, it is imperative to support your back properly throughout the night.
If you thought pillows were just for your head, think again! The best sleeping positions support your spine in its natural alignment, so turn yourself into a jigsaw puzzle and fill any gaps between you and the mattress with pillows for extra support. You can also use a pregnancy pillow to keep you from rolling onto your stomach!
On Your Back – Savasana
The best position for your spine is flat on your back with a low but supportive pillow which doesn’t tilt your chin too far down into your chest. If you like to sleep with seven pillows under your head, ditch them! If you find it hard to sleep with your head totally flat, consider elevating your whole upper body slightly with a gently sloping wedge pillow or adjustable mattress rather than tilting your head forward with pillows, as this pinches your nerves. For you yogis out there, this position mimics the ‘savasana’ pose. It distributes your weight evenly and puts less strain on pressure points. Bonus effects of this position include less wrinkles, but sleeping on the back may not be advisable for those with sleep apnoea. This position is actually not a very popular one—only around 8% of people do it!
Make it even better:
This position places your spine in a natural alignment, and you can help this even further by placing a small pillow underneath your knees to elevate them slightly. A good mattress will complement this position even further — it should support the hollow of your lower back and prevent your lower torso and pelvis from sinking too deep into it.
On your side – loose foetal position
If you’re a side sleeper you are with the majority of adults – 41% percent choose the foetal position as their favourite, with another 15% on their side in a straight or very loose foetal position.
A loose foetal position (on your side, knees bent) on your left-hand side improves circulation in your body, and is especially good for pregnant people as it prevents the uterus from pressing against the liver. A very loose foetal position elongates the spine, which decreases the chance of back and neck pain and acid reflux. Beware, though – a too-tight foetal position can cramp your diaphragm and restrict breathing, as well as inflame arthritis in your back or joints.
Make it even better:
Place a pillow between your knees to reduce the pressure on the joints there and make it more comfortable for them to naturally stack on top of each other – one knee pulled over and in front of the other pulls your spine into an odd twisted alignment. If laying on your side leaves a gap between your waist and the mattress, try putting a small pillow there too. Justin from our Clevedon clinic advises that “if you sleep on your side, keep your spine as level as possible. This includes not letting your neck bend up or down from a pillow which is too low or too high”.
Pay attention to how you place your limbs. Try to keep your knees slightly bent but not pulled right up – the classic spooning position is a good reference for the shape you should be aiming for (not to mention the other benefits of spooning!).
If you really love sleeping on your front and can’t bear the thought of switching, try placing a small pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen to relieve some of the pressure from your back. Be very careful about your pillow choice too – it shouldn’t push your head too far back, and you may not need one at all.
Ultimately, comfort is key for sleep. Whatever position you choose, make sure your spine is properly supported.