Many patients come to me concerned about waking up with back pain caused by a “bad mattress” or uncomfortable sleeping position. This is often indicative of an underlying disk problem or arthritic condition. Even those without a spinal diagnosis or chronic pain can experience an achy back or neck after a night of sleep. What’s worse is that a lack of sleep can actually cause more sensitivity to pain and make mild back pain feel more severe. In general, we recommend a firm mattress with a pillow-top cushion layer for comfort.
Back pain from sleeping is caused when strain is put on the spine in one position for a prolonged period of time – most often felt in the lower back. When this occurs, getting out of bed in the morning can be very painful, especially for the first 30 minutes until things loosen up. How can you avoid this pain? Simple adjustments to your sleeping positions can help make a difference.
The most common sleeping position for adults is on your side with your hips aligned and legs slightly bent. However, as we sleep, the unsupported top leg tends to fall and rotate the lower spine. As we hold this position, it can often strain the back and we wake up with low back pain and even pain in the hip. One easy fix is to place a pillow between your knees if you sleep on your side. This helps support the top leg, preventing the hip from rotating. If you are pregnant, sleeping with a body pillow on your front side is a great way to relieve pressure from the back and spine.
Another common position for sleeping is lying flat on your back. This position can help some sleepers find comfort, but if you don’t change position, you can wake up feeling stiff. One way to reduce strain while sleeping on your back is to place a pillow under your knees. This position flexes the hips and rotates the pelvis a bit , which helps take some pressure off the spinal joints and disks. Another adjustment is to support the small of the back or the neck with a small pillow or rolled towel.
Sleeping on your stomach is the position that can put the most strain on your back. Without any support for the spine, and with the extension pressure that occurs from being face down, it can increase strain on the lower back and the neck. Placing a pillow under your pelvis can help support the back by allowing gentle flexion at the hips, which takes some pressure off the back. Also, sleeping without a pillow under your head can help reduce neck strain.
Spine-Health has also shared a great article about sleeping positions and mattress options for those with a diagnosed spinal condition.
No matter what your sleeping position, there are ways to improve it to make it more conducive to a healthy spine. If you try these modifications in a consistent manner for a period of time and you’re still experiencing back pain, I recommend consulting your physician or coming in for an appointment. Sweet dreams!