Finding a comfortable sleep position is mostly a matter of preference. Everyone has their favorite. But, sometimes pain, a health condition, an aging mattress or even a stressful event makes finding that sweet spot hard to sleep on.
Sleep position also tends to change with age according to research. As we get older we many of us tend to prefer side sleeping more, especially on the right side. The reason for this is not clear, but it may be to help organ functions during sleep.
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Sleeping positions for aches and pains
I go through every sleeping position during the night most of the time. But sometimes there is a problem and I have to change from one position or another.
Here are a few problems that many people encounter trying to find that comfortable spot in bed.
I have off and on had nagging pain in my hips that ran down to my knees when I tried to lay down. Constantly changing my position every few moments or rocking my legs would give only an instant of relief.
How did I finally get relief to be able to sleep?
Sleeping on your side puts more stress on your hips. But most people prefer to sleep on their side. What can you do?
First try laying on the hip that does not bother you. Next, you can use a pillow or rolled blanket between your legs with your knees slightly bent to reduce the stress on the hip giving you pain.
You can also change to a back sleeping position and place a pillow under your knees.
Sciatic pain is caused when your sciatic nerve becomes pinched at some point and radiates pain along the nerve. This occurs most often in a disc in your lower back.
The nerve starts at your spinal cord and runs down your hips and the back of your legs. This is why you may experience the pain shooting down your leg. This usually occurs on only one side or the other.
Because it is spinal related, you want to try to keep the natural alignment of your spine to keep the pressure off the pinched point.
Lay on your side with the painful side up, again with a pillow between your knees. If there are any spaces between your side and the mattress you can place a pillow or blanket there to help keep the alignment of your spine and pelvis.
The main thing is to keep your spine from being twisted so no pressure builds on an individual point. With sciatic pain you will want to avoid the stomach sleep position as it puts pressure on your spine and related muscles.
Sleeping on a mattress or other surface that is too soft and allows the spine to curve can aggravate the condition.
Keeping your back aligned is the key to reducing back pain when you sleep. In addition, poor sleep has been shown in studies to increase the chances of chronic back pain in some patients.
Here are the most recommended positions to help with back pain.
Side position – Place a pillow between your knees and another pillow or blanket in the hollow between your waist and the mattress to keep your natural spine alignment. This will prevent “pinching” spinal areas to create pressure.
Side position – Lay with your legs tucked in the fetal position to open the space between your vertebrae and relieve any pressure there.
Back position – Sleep with your knees raised and a pillow underneath to relieve pressure and help spinal alignment.
Reclined position – Do you ever want to fall asleep in your recliner then when you go to bed you can’t get the same comfort?
That’s because the recliner creates an angle between your body trunk and your legs that reduces the pressure on your spine.
You can recreate this in your bed by sleeping partly upright by placing pillows under you and then a pillow under your knees to get that reclined effect.
If a long term or permanent condition you may want to think about and adjustable bed. You could of course just sleep in your recliner if you like. But that’s just me being me.
Stomach position – Personally, I find sleeping on my stomach can sometimes curve my back in reverse when I raise up to roll over in bed.
But, in some cases such as degenerative disc disease, you may find relief by reducing the pressure on the specific area affected.
Place a pillow under your stomach beneath the affected area to allow the spaces to open up and relieve the pressure on that point.
You may have thought that your pillow makes the most difference to fixing your neck pain. After all, if it feels really comfortable and that should be good, right?
But studies show that regardless of pillow type your neck and muscle activity is more dependent upon your sleep posture. A good pillow is great, but won’t help reduce the pain of a poor sleeping position.
Side sleeping positions and back sleeping positions are best if you are dealing with neck pain. Lying on your stomach puts more stress on your neck.
Try using a small round pillow under your neck and a flat pillow to rest your head. This will help to keep your spine aligned while you sleep.
A pillow that is too high or too stiff can cause your neck to flex while you sleep and you may wake in the morning with a stiff neck. So here is where the right pillow can make a difference.
What sleep position is best if I’m pregnant?
At the beginning of your pregnancy sleeping on your stomach may be comfortable and that’s OK. But, as your baby develops and your uterus increases in size this could become less comfortable.
Sleeping on your left side will provide more comfort as well as health benefits for you and your baby. First, it lets more blood flow to your baby. Second, it will improve kidney function.
Sleeping on your back is not the best choice. It compresses a blood vessel known as the inferior vena cava causing restriction of blood flow, diminished heart performance and ultimately can affect oxygen levels to your baby.
For more comfort try putting one pillow between your knees and another under your abdomen. If you need more support putting a pillow behind you back can help as well.
Can I breathe better when I sleep on my back?
The difficulty with sleep apnea or snoring, which often accompanies sleep apnea, is that your airways collapse during sleep.
The worst sleep position is on your back because your tongue and jaw can fall to reduce flow through your airways.
For the best comfort and ability to breathe sleeping on your side or stomach is the best way to keep those passages open. This will help reduce the symptoms of sleep apnea and snoring.
Sleeping in the supine position, that is lying on your back face up, has shown in studies to be the most beneficial.
Patients using a sleep diary over a 30 day period recorded fewer or no asthma symptoms and were able to reduce medications just by sleeping on their back.
They also had less nighttime awakenings for a more restful night.
Why do I get acid reflux when I sleep on my stomach?
I have had acid reflux disease for over 20 years, to the point I now have developed Barret’s Esophagus. Even with medication from my doctor I can still have nights that give me trouble when I go to bed.
Waking up with that burning sensation in your throat and lungs is not pleasant.
For those of us who have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) relieving the burn is the key to be able to go to sleep.
If you usually like stomach sleeping like I do you may quickly find yourself waking in the middle of the night from acid reflux.
This is because your esophagus is level to or below your stomach allowing stomach fluids to easily flow downhill. Also, sleeping on your right side may make things worse.
The best sleep position for acid reflux or heartburn is on your left side to reduce back flow into your esophagus.
If you like sleeping on your back make sure your esophagus is higher than your stomach using a good pillow for support.
I have had some doctors also recommend that you raise the head of your bed about an inch or so to get the same result without the need for extra pillows.
Why do I feel restless?
If you can’t feel that comfortable spot because your restless it may be a more mental health thing that keeps you rolling around.
How to sleep with stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia are a different animal than physical pain or discomfort.
All are known to have you lying awake at night and can each be related to the other. Tossing and turning in bed for these conditions can make any comfortable sleeping position hard to find.
How to cure insomnia and other mental or emotional issues can sometimes be helped by following good sleep hygiene or addressing the issue causing the stress or anxiety.
If you find yourself having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep 3 nights or more per week for a period lasting 4 weeks or lack of sleep affects your normal daytime activities you should consult your doctor.
How can I feel more comfortable in bed?
A comfortable sleep position can be a challenge if your bed doesn’t have the right support for your sleep style.
I spent years sleeping on handed down mattresses and sleeper sofas with springs or rods in my back that not only made it hard to sleep but made you wake up in more pain than when you went to bed.
Here are a few tips for making your preferred sleeping position more comfortable.
For side sleepers a softer mattress or adding a mattress topper can help eliminate built up pressure and adjust to the contours of your body.
You may want a pillow on the firmer side that supports your head and neck by keeping your spine aligned and doesn’t let your head sink into a twisted position.
If you like to sleep on your stomach a firmer mattress that does not allow you to sink in and a thinner pillow that does not cause strain on your neck can make your preferred sleep position easier.
A personal observation of mine ( I like stomach sleeping sometimes) is that my pillow will often bunch up against the head of the bed and strain my neck anyway regardless of the type of pillow.
I will often either move lower in bed or remove my pillow and sleep with my hands under my head. ( I breathe easier without my face directly against the bedding.)
When you sleep on your back, too soft of a mattress can allow you to sink in and throw off alignment in your spine.
This can of course result in back or neck pain. A firmer mattress can keep everything in better alignment.
You can use pillows if needed under your knees or lower back to keep everything in a neutral position.
The take away
Regardless of which sleep position you prefer, changes in your situation can still call for you to at least temporarily shift to something different. There are both benefits and reasons to avoid each style of sleeping.
In general keeping your spinal alignment Is key to being comfortable while you sleep. Keeping pressure off of sensitive points and keeping that alignment so you can sleep well and wake pain free and refreshed is the goal.
Did you find a comfortable sleep position and how did it help you? Let me know in the comments below.
The information on this website is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. When you have questions regarding your health you should seek the advice of your health care provider.
Position yourself for a goodnight’s sleep
Effect of different mattress designs on promoting sleep quality, pain reduction, and spinal alignment in adults with or without back pain: systematic review of controlled trials
Risk factors associated with clinical insomnia in chronic low back pain: a retrospective analysis in a university hospital in Korea
The association between sleep and chronic spinal pain: a systematic review from the last decade
Effect of sleep posture on neck muscle activity
Choosing the best sleep position
Your sleep position affects much more than you think
Typical sleep positions in pregnant women
Sleeping position and reported night-time asthma symptoms and medication