Many people suffer from chronic pain – either from repetitive use injuries, postural distortions, or other pathological states. One very simple thing we can do in order to alleviate some of this discomfort is to pay more attention to our body positioning while we sleep.
A good night’s sleep allows your body to rest and recuperate from the day’s stresses. Your muscles need this time of total relaxation in order to rejuvenate themselves. However, although you may lie down to rest, your muscles may not necessarily be relaxed. Sleeping in compromised or uncomfortable positions can cause your muscles to contract all night, which will result in waking up achy or tired. Not fully supporting your proper alignment can also cause your muscles to do unnecessary work while they are supposed to be resting. You can easily alter your sleep position in order to make your sleeping hours the most effective for your body.
Sleeping on your back:
This appears to be therapists’ favorite sleeping position. If you like to sleep on your back, it’s important to support the natural curvature of your spine. Your cervical spine at the back of your neck naturally curves inward from the bottom of your skull to your shoulder area, and this curve needs to be supported. A good rule of thumb is: your ears should line up with your shoulders. Often people sleep with pillows that allow for too much support in the head area, causing the head to be flexed slightly forward all night, which overstretches the muscles at the back of the neck. A cervical pillow, which is slightly thicker in the neck area than the head area, is perfect for cradling the head in optimal alignment. If you prefer not to sleep with a pillow, a small towel rolled up and placed under the neck area works very well.
The second area of inward curvature in the spine is at the lower back. Sleeping on your back can cause the lumbar spine to arch upward too much, so sleeping with a small pillow under the knees can help balance this and bring the low back into a more natural curve. The pillow under the knees also allows your hip flexors to completely relax, which takes pressure off of the pelvis. If supporting your legs then causes your lower back to press too far down into the bed, a very small towel folded up and placed under your lower back should get you into just the right position. It might take a few tries to get the towel and pillow height just perfect, but it’s worth taking the time to get it right. You want to imagine the best bodily alignment you could achieve while standing up and support this posture while lying down.
Bad for your body:
Good for your body:
Sleeping on your side:
This position is the most helpful for people who suffer from sleep apnea or snoring. Like back-sleepers, side-sleepers will need to support the spine, starting with the cervical vertebrae and muscles. A cervical pillow will work nicely here. In this position a towel rolled up under the neck is generally not enough support, because the head needs to be slightly raised off of the bed so the neck is straight. Again, the ears should line up with the shoulders and the head should be straight. In order to avoid your shoulders collapsing into your chest (we spend too much time during the day with those shoulders rolled forward anyway!), you can hug a large pillow with the top arm in front of your chest.
The lower back and hips need to be properly placed as well. The goal is to maintain your spine in a neutral position, by slightly bending and curling your legs forward while avoiding an overly fetal position. A pillow in between your legs from your knees to your ankles will support your top leg in proper hip alignment. For women with smaller waists, you may need to put a small folded towel under your waist to keep your side from collapsing down into the bed. Any space in between your body and the bed could be filled by a folded towel or a pillow in order to make those muscles completely relaxed. However, if that sounds like too much work – the neck and the knees is a great start.
Sleeping on your stomach:
Most therapists agree that this position is not desirable for sleeping and should be avoided. The main reason to avoid stomach-sleeping is that the head must be turned to the left or right, which is not good alignment for the cervical spine or for relaxing the muscles of the neck, as they find themselves in rotation all night. Lying down on your stomach also arches your back into a swayback, which compresses the vertebrae in your lower back. If you must lie down on your stomach, putting a very small folded towel under your stomach to open up your lumbar spine helps, but it does not help the bigger problem of the cervical spine rotation. In addition, stomach-sleepers compress their internal organs by putting too much weight on the front of the torso. One trick to stop yourself from rolling over onto your stomach is to place two large pillows on either side of you while sleeping on your back. The hope is that they will deter you from rolling over.
This may sound like a lot of work, but it only takes a few weeks to condition yourself to sleep in a more restful position. Supporting your muscles and bones during the night is one of the most important things you can do for your body. This simple thing will help your body to maintain proper movement patterns and to alleviate chronic pain.