By chiropractor – Rob Grace
We are frequently advised that our body and our overall health can be enhanced with quality sleep and 8 hours a night is the recommendation. That is one third of our lives asleep, one third of our lives lying in bed. So, if we are sleeping in a bad position, we could actually be causing strain or injury to our body without realising it.
At the clinic, I am regularly asked which sleeping position is the best and especially if someone is already suffering from hip, back, neck or shoulder pain. There is nothing worse than being kept awake at night through pain or discomfort – this only exaggerates the pain we are in through tiredness. There is no doubt that the position you sleep in affects not only your sleep but your body’s function but wanting to avoid the scientific reasons behind the different sleeping positions, I will focus on the musculoskeletal effects.
As you know, from our many postural related features, our bodies are not designed to be still for extending lengths of time and we recommend regular movement throughout the day to alleviate pressure on joints and soft tissues. Sleep is no exception. If you remain in the same position throughout the night, it should come as no surprise that you wake up feeling stiff; so natural movement throughout the night is advantageous.
But which sleeping position is best?
Maintaining the spine’s natural curves is paramount – as it is throughout the day. So, finding a position that is comfortable and well supportive is the objective.
Without doubt, lying on your back is the best position to sleep in. This offers the greatest surface area in contact with the mattress, therefore distributing weight and minimising pressure points. With the use of one pillow, the neck can be suitably supported. If you are suffering from low back pain, I would advise you put a small pillow under your knees to relieve any pressure in the lumbar region, but this is not advisable indefinitely, as it may result in tightening of the hip flexors, especially if you sit a lot throughout the day. I appreciate, many of you may suffer from the affliction of snoring, so back sleeping isn’t ideal, but I am only giving advice from a musculoskeletal perspective. Apologies to any poor snore suffering partner!
Next best – side-lying – and this is also the most popular position. One thing I would strongly suggest for side sleepers, is putting a thin pillow between your knees. This helps to keep the hips square and the spine in alignment. It also avoids overstretching the glutes and rotation in low back. To keep the neck supported, two pillows may be required, and I would advise keeping the top arm resting along the body, rather than rotating forwards. One issue with this position, is that the bottom shoulder can become compressed and as many of us are already round shouldered, this can add to that forward rotation.
Under no circumstance would I advise sleeping on your stomach! This is for two primary reasons – the lower back joints are compressed and as the head naturally turns to the side (allowing us to breathe), strain is put through the joints and tissues. I know that many people struggle with staying on their side or back and find they roll over to their stomach in the night, this can be avoided by little tricks such as putting a pillow close to your side or as far as sewing a ball into the front of your sleepwear – that should be enough to put you off!
I strongly suggest you invest in a good quality, supportive mattress, especially if yours is over 8 years old (see our mattress article). But, simply being aware of your body’s natural alignment and trying to maintain it, is a good place to start.