If you’ve ever had to deal with back pain, you know just how hard it can be on both daily activities and your sleep schedule. Doctors have long recognized a relationship between back pain and sleep quality: aches and discomfort may make it more difficult for you to fall asleep, or to enjoy deep, restorative rest.
At the same time, impaired sleep quality may worsen the symptoms of back pain. To stop back pain from getting in the way of a good night’s sleep, we’ve put together tips for each type of sleeper as well as broken down the two types of back pain often associated with sleep.
Tips for Sleeping with Back Pain
The good news for those who suffer from back pain is that a good night’s sleep is attainable with a few basic modifications to your sleep hygiene, including potential changes to your preferred sleeping position.
Tips for Each Type of Sleeper
One of the best ways to address back pain, particularly back pain associated with sleep, is to adjust your sleeping position. Here are a few tips and guidelines.
Sleeping on your back is generally considered to be the best bet for alleviating pain. That’s because back sleepers are able to keep their spine neutral, without too much of their body weight pressing on the spine or causing tension.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, sleeping on your back “evenly distributes weight across the widest surface of your body, minimizing pressure points and ensuring proper alignment of your internal organs.”
Back sleeping can be especially therapeutic if you sleep with elevated knees. You can achieve this simply by stacking a pillow or two under your legs; you can experiment with different pillows to find something that feels comfortable. The reason elevating your knees can prove helpful is that it allows your spine to assume its most natural curvature; this is especially true if you also place a small roll or towel underneath your neck.
While sleeping on your back is probably the easiest way to achieve a neutral spine position, sleeping on your side may also work; if this feels more comfortable and natural to you, it’s recommended that you place a pillow under your neck and another one between your knees, which is crucial for facilitating health spinal alignment and thus for alleviating back pain.
Side sleepers are advised to avoid sleeping with their knees bent toward their face, or in what’s known as the fetal position. According to Keck Medicine of USC, the fetal position “promotes an uneven distribution of weight that can cause back pain and sore joints.” If you find yourself naturally shifting into the fetal position, be deliberate in untucking your chin and adjusting your knees; or, simply shift onto your back.
Sleeping on your stomach is probably the worst option for those who deal with back pain. This position puts a lot of pressure on the spine and on the muscles that surround it, and also flattens the spine’s natural curve. Additionally, Keck Medicine notes that sleeping on your stomach forces you to turn your neck, which can cause pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
For those who are most accustomed to stomach sleeping, the best way to do it is to place a small pillow under the belly, which helps keep the back slightly arched and the spine naturally curved. This may mitigate lower back pain, but won’t necessarily help with the neck pain; really, the ideal solution is to try a different sleeping position.
A few final guidelines for those who deal with sleep-related back pain include:
Choose the Right Mattress
A good mattress for back pain will allow you to feel fully supported, not like you’re sinking into the middle of your bed. Generally speaking, something in the medium-firm range is best for supporting spinal alignment and for keeping tension off key pressure points.
Practice Yoga Before Bed
A little pre-bedtime yoga may also prove helpful. Not only can yoga and intense stretching help release tension in the body, but a consistent yoga practice can also clear the mind of stress and worry.
Use Healthy Posture
Finally, you can prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep simply by exercising the right posture during the day. WebMD provides some helpful tips for maintaining good posture during the work day: “Don’t slump over your keyboard. Sit upright, with your shoulders relaxed and your body supported against the back of your chair… Keep your feet flat on the floor.”
Types Of Back Pain
Morning Back Pain
Do you ever wake up feeling stiff, achy, and sore? Morning back pain is a common affliction, and while it is sometimes indicative of a serious medical diagnosis, it may also reflect the wrong choice in mattress, pillow, or sleeping position.
Science confirms that acute back pain is actually most common in the early hours of the day. Most of the time, this early morning back pain is concentrated in the lower part of the back. The fact that this condition is so common at the start of the day points to the significant role that sleep can play in inflaming it.
Indeed, the most common cause of morning back pain is poor sleep posture, which puts pressure on the spine and causes it to flatten or compress. However, in some cases, morning back pain may also be linked with degenerative disc disease, which causes the vertebrae to deteriorate. The chronic pain condition fibromyalgia may also cause morning back pain.
Nocturnal Back Pain
While some people suffer from back pain upon waking, others struggle with it throughout the night. Nocturnal back pain can come on suddenly. “A person can actually go through a day virtually pain-free,” notes WebMD. “But then at night, he or she might find it nearly impossible to get a full night’s sleep.”
Nocturnal back pain is typically concentrated at the lower part of the back, and may be caused by any number of factors. Some common triggers include illnesses that impact the movement of the spine, including degenerative disc disease. Conditions such as scoliosis, which changes the curvature of the spine, may also have an impact. For about 5 percent of those with lower back pain, the underlying issue may be a chronic or systemic health condition.
Compared with early morning back pain, nocturnal back pain is less likely to be caused by a poor sleep experience. With that said, if you find that you toss and turn in bed while encountering ever-increasing pain and discomfort, that may be a sign that you’re sleeping on a bad mattress.
Don’t Let Back Pain Interfere With Your Sleep
Back pain and poor sleep often go hand in hand, yet simple lifestyle changes can bring this vicious cycle to a conclusion. In particular, make sure you have a medium-firm mattress that offers you ample support; and, that you’re sleeping on your back or your side, with a posture that promotes spinal health and alignment.
Andrew is a Charlotte, NC native who learned the importance of a good night’s sleep in college after too many late nights in the library. Today, he helps connect Mattress Clarity’s array of resources with people looking to get a better night’s sleep. He enjoys researching the links between sleep and health, nutrition, and exercise as well as finding practical ways for people to improve their sleep quality.