Could your favorite sleeping position be causing your neck or back pain? It’s common knowledge that a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you can do for a healthy life. While we’re catching z’s, our bodies are hard at work releasing essential hormones, giving our nervous systems some much needed relaxation, and boosting our immune systems. And while it seems logical to fall asleep in the position that’s most immediately comfortable to you, your go-to sleeping posture could be causing your neck and back pain.
As a chiropractor, I get asked on a daily basis my opinion on the correct sleeping position, pillow recommendations, and how to prevent waking up with a stiff, aching back. In the healthcare community, this is referred to as ‘sleep hygiene’. A quick google of ‘recommended sleeping positions’ reveals a lot of conflicting views on the subject. Often leading to more questions than answers. So, as your favorite neighborhood chiropractor, I’m here to put your sleep questions to rest. (Pun intended).
What is the Best Sleeping Position?
The correct answer might surprise you. But first, let’s take a quick look at the options:
- On your side. Head on a pillow.
- On your back. Head on a pillow.
- On your stomach. Head on a pillow.
- Any of those options, but with a fancy, memory foam, ergonomic pillow designed by angels that could be yours for the low price of 6 payments of $49.99
Actually, it’s none of these. The best way to get a good night’s sleep and help prevent back and neck pain is on your stomach, with no pillow. Yep, no pillow. Let’s dig into the science behind this methodology. Sleeping on your stomach actually helps your brain get more oxygen as opposed to sleeping on your back. In fact, hospitals will often place patients with pneumonia or other respiratory issues in a ‘prone position’, aka on their stomach, for hours at a time to take some stress off of their lungs and allow them to expand fully. In fact, much of our lung space is actually located in our backs, not our chests.
Think About Babies…
For the sake of science, let’s think about babies for a second. Babies spend the majority of their time on their tummies. This helps the spine grow into the proper curvature, keeps the airways wide open, and develops their neck muscles as they need to lift their heads to look around. Adults are pretty much giant babies anyway. So at what point did things change that caused back sleeping to be superior to tummy time? They didn’t. Additionally, back sleepers often tend to sleep with their mouth open, causing dry mouth, chapped lips, and yes, snoring.
To simplify it, sleeping on our stomachs helps us maintain proper spinal curvature. It helps us get more oxygen. And it helps prevent the pain associated with poor sleep posture.
The Latest Sleep Gadget…
Okay. Now let’s address the memory-foam filled elephant in the room. Pillows. We’ve all seen the infomercials with the superimposed jagged red line representing the spine out of alignment when using the other pillows, and that line turns a perfectly straight serene blue once the magic pillow du jour is placed under the head of the actor. Well, I’m here to tell you that that’s not a thing. In fact, proper alignment can only be measured when someone is standing upright, against gravity. Not when they’re lying down.
Yes. The pillow industry has been lying to you. When the head is supported by a pillow, it actually causes the shoulders to rotate unevenly. Then the hips to fall out of alignment. And the head to dip forwards towards the chest, causing an incorrect curve in the spine itself. Over time, this not only weakens neck muscles, but trains the body to want to naturally fall into that position. Not just when you’re sleeping. But all the time.
For example, we’ve all heard about tech-neck; creating a generation of humans with heads that dip slightly down instead of straight ahead and cause painful, curved necks. Sleeping on your side or back with an overstuffed pillow is like staring at your phone in the tech-neck position…for 8 hours straight. Sleeping on your stomach without a pillow allows the body to naturally reset into the correct position and function optimally, from your skeletal structure to your internal airways.
Sounds Good…But I’d Still Like a Pillow
If you absolutely must have a pillow, there are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to picking one. Coincidentally, the ones that claim to be ergonomically designed, filled with NASA technology, or claim to be orthopedic are actually the worst ones if you’re trying to prevent or relieve back and neck pain.
I highly recommend feather or down filled pillows. They add some softness while flattening out enough to maintain the effect of having your whole body be on the same ‘level’. I personally use a down pillow from Down & Feather Company. As I write this I’ve had it almost ten years and it’s still going strong.
If you absolutely cannot fall asleep in any position besides your back, get your pillow as flat as possible. In addition, I recommend rolling up a towel or a blanket and putting it under your knees so that they are bent a bit. This will relieve some of the pressure from your spine. Push a hole in your pillow to create a divot that will cradle your neck in a more neutral position so your pillow isn’t pushing your neck forward.
If you sleep on your side, fluff your pillow up so your neck isn’t cranking one way or the other too much. You can also put something between your knees so your hips don’t twist.
More Important Than Your Sleep Position
At this point, you may be wondering how you are possibly going to completely change your sleeping routine when you’ve been a side or a back sleeping your entire life. Don’t panic. Science and chiropractic jargon aside, the most important thing is that you actually get a good, restful sleep! The benefits of quality sleep far outweigh tinkering with your sleep posture.
The truth is, when your body is relaxed, as long as you are not twisting your body in extremely unusual ways or pushing your neck too far forward, this isn’t the spot to make major changes. If you are looking for an area to improve your posture, focus on your posture during the day where your body is weight bearing, functional, and moving. The best sleep posture is the one that lets you sleep!
Thank you for reading. Please Share this with anyone who you think might benefit.