Taking Care of Your Spine While Sleeping
by Megan A. Tuzzo, DC
A commonly overlooked aspect of spinal health involves your sleeping position, and it can be argued that taking care of your spine starts with proper sleep. Sleep, for your body as well as your mind, is a time where resting and healing take place and stressful sleeping positions can interfere with this process. If you find yourself waking up with a stiff neck or a sore lower back changing your sleeping position can help alleviate this discomfort. Oftentimes, our “go to” sleeping positions are not ideal for our spinal health and these sleeping positions can contribute to muscle strains and ligament sprains.
You may be asking “Why do sleep positions matter?” It has been supported that at night, your spine rehydrates, lengthens, and heals. This is the time where your intervertebral discs (the “cushions” of your spine) can relax from the stress of everyday life (walking, running, bending, etc.).
Waking up with a stiff neck or lower back will not just ruin your day (or warrant an emergency call to your chiropractor!) but can lead to other health issues and more pain.
Let’s explore a few different sleeping positions, and the effect that they have on the body.
Which type are you?
The Stomach Sleeper
Stomach sleeping can be comforting for most as it can be traced back to our infancy. As infants, our mothers habitually held us close to their bodies, typically with our stomach and face directly on her chest which increased comfort by way of human contact.
Although the coziness and familiarity associated with stomach sleeping may feel nice, stomach sleeping puts extra and unnecessary stress on our bodies. With your neck in a twisted position (as is common for stomach sleepers), our discs are not able to hydrate and repair during slumber due to the intervertebral discs being compressed. Stomach sleeping also puts a lot of tension pressure on the lower back by increasing the curve of your lumbar spine, causing pain and distress. Stomach sleeping has also been shown to put a burden on your internal organs, which negatively impacts normal circulation and digestion.
However for stomach sleepers, it isn’t all gloom and doom. The good news is that stomach sleepers can easily transition to side sleeping which is a healthier position for your spine. My advice is to try hugging a pillow in your arms. This position will help support your upper body and prevent your neck and lower back from twisting. You may find this healthier position to provide the same level of coziness you get from sleeping on your stomach.
The Side Sleeper
Again, like stomach sleeping, the comfort from sleeping on your side can be traced back to our infancy. Side sleepers often seek the same comfort they experienced in the womb (a.k.a. curling up in the fetal position). This position can also lead to problems such as experiencing sharp pains in the sides of your neck via a pillow not providing proper support to the head and neck and muscle pain by placing extra stress on the muscles of your cervical spine. To make matters worse, side sleepers that sleep with one arm above the head are often at risk of pinching their brachial plexus (the nerves in your armpit) which can cause numbness, tingling, and sharp pains traveling down the arm.
Side sleepers are like Goldilocks; they need to find a pillow that is not too high, not too low, but JUST RIGHT. The key here is to make sure that your pillow is high enough to support your neck but not too high as to bend it beyond the comfort zone and cause strains. A good rule of thumb is that your neck should lay straight over the pillow, evenly between both shoulders, keeping your spine straight as you rest your head.
Are you a side sleeper with low back pain? Side sleepers should also sleep with a pillow between their legs. This prevents twisting of the lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints. Lumbar and sacroiliac joint dysfunction is a common cause of lower back and sciatic pain. Side sleepers should also sleep with their legs slightly bent, which reduces pressure on the lower back.
Personally, as a side sleeper, my favorite way to prevent this is to hold a pillow. Find a nice, firm pillow to wrap your arms around. This keeps your shoulders supported, and prevents you from rolling forward onto your stomach.
The Back Sleeper
Congratulations! You are already applying the best position for your spine during sleep. Sleeping on your back helps evenly distribute your weight by decreasing pressure on your joints and spine and this position also promotes good circulation. By putting less pressure on your discs, your discs can easily hydrate as you rest which truly leads to good spine health.
If you are a back sleeper, be sure to make sure that your neck is properly supported. Your pillow should be high enough to support your neck, but not so high that your face is angled down towards your chest. A cervical pillow is highly recommended as it provides the proper support for your neck. Keep your arms down to your sides, as to not stress your shoulder joints. Sleep with a pillow on each side to prevent yourself from rolling, and to provide extra support for your shoulders.
This is by no means a comprehensive list as there are many other beneficial sleeping positions (like sleeping on an incline for acid reflux) depending on your lifestyle or personal sleeping requirements. A new sleeping position can take some time to get accustomed to, but a good night’s rest is one of the most valuable things in our busy lives. Our bodies have the amazing ability to heal themselves and poor sleeping habits interfere with this power.
Stop into Greater Rochester Chiropractic for more information on sleeping positions as well as personalized tips and tricks for a more restful and spine-friendly sleep. We also sell several types of pillows at our office!
Stay tuned for more spinal care! - MAT
Dr. Megan A. Tuzzo is the newest doctor at Greater Rochester Chiropractic. She takes pride in providing chiropractic care to those in all stages of life. She is a member of the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association and the Rochester Women’s Network.