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Sleeping positions: The good, the bad and the ugly

by Athletico3 Comments

Do you sleep in different positions on a nightly basis? Chances are the answer is yes—and that’s common. There isn’t any one sleeping position that works for everyone. Some people prefer to sleep on their side, others on their back. Your usual sleep position — along with other factors, including your weight— can strain your back and contribute to development of back pain. Sleeping positions also affect existing back pain, either by letting you sleep comfortably or by making you wake up sore and achy. Similarly, back pain is more likely to keep you awake when your sleeping position provides no relief.

If you’re someone who finds yourself regularly sleeping on your stomach, it may be time to put a conscious effort into changing sleeping positions. In this position, you are forced to turn your head to one side or the other to breathe efficiently. Sleeping in this position can end in a long-term result of neck pain and “wear and tear” on the joints connected to the spine.

Another common sleeping position is lying with one’s arm or arms over their head. This position tends to place stress on your shoulder. The body weight placed on this shoulder can cause a compression of the nerve bundle as it passes into the arm. Many people report symptoms of waking up with numbness in their arms and hands when they sleep in this position.

Sleeping on your side

The most common sleeping position is on your side, with your legs and hips aligned and flexed. Because this position leaves your upper leg unsupported, the top knee and thigh tend to slide forward and rest on the mattress, rotating the lower spine. This slight rotation may contribute to back or hip pain. To prevent that problem, place a pillow between your knees and thighs

Sleeping on your back

If you sleep on your back, place a pillow under your knees to help maintain the normal curve of your lower back. You might try a small, rolled towel under the small of your back for additional support.  This position may be helpful if you have low back pain.  Support your neck with a pillow that allows your spine to stay in a neutral position.  Caution not to add too many pillows under your head which flexes your neck.

Sleeping on your abdomen

Sleeping on your abdomen can be hard on your back. If you can’t sleep any other way, reduce the strain on your back by placing a pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen. Use a pillow under your head if it doesn’t place too much strain on your back. If it does cause strain, try sleeping without a pillow under your head.

To try and break your habit of sleeping on your stomach, sleep with a pillow under a large t-shirt for a week or two.  Your body will learn it is unable to roll onto your stomach and to find another comfortable position, as listed above.

If you are unsure how to go about changing your sleeping position or the proper posture required during your slumber, Athletico physical therapists will be more than happy to give you some pointers.

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  1. Barbara Eylers

    Very interesting, always loved to sleep on my stomach, but now have decided to try sleeping on my side. thanks so much for your info on this subject.

  2. Nicole

    I didn’t know that sleeping on your back and sides are bad.. I will remember this and try to sleep properly, thanks for sharing this!


    Theese are good tips for more comfort, while sleeping. I will try to train my body to sleep with pillows on my back , and side. Also no stomachsleeping at all! I have been a stomach sleeper for years. Just recently changed that habit due to pain when getting out of bed, in the morning. Thanks for the tips.

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