If you’ve ever pulled a muscle, pinched a nerve, or, worse, injured a disk in your back, neck or shoulder, you know how painful these conditions can be. You also know how uncomfortable it can be to try to sleep with these conditions. The biggest complaint of my patients that have these injuries is not so much the pain and stiffness they cause, but the lack of sleep they suffer. So, let me share the right sleep positions that can help improve sleep quality.
How to Sleep with Aches and Pains Using the Right Position
Pulled or strained muscles, pinched nerves, bulging disks, torn ligaments and other injuries to your neck, back and shoulders can really put a damper on sleep. You can toss and turn all night, or wind up awake half the night. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 2/3 of people with chronic, or acute, pain suffer from poor or “unrefreshing” sleep.
Ironically, sleep is the time when your body tries to heal everything that needs fixing in your body. Sleep helps decrease inflammation that causes that sharp, burning pain. Sleep also allows your muscles to relax and unkink themselves. It’s also a time when spinal disks rehydrate so they stop rubbing against nerves or each other. Getting several hours of restful sleep is important to aid these conditions to heal faster.
Falling asleep is only half the solution. The position you fall asleep in can actually make you feel worse by putting more pressure on disks, further pinching already compressed nerves, or continuously re-straining over-stretched muscles and ligaments. As a result, you wake up feeling much worse in the morning rather than better. So, you want to be sure you’re sleeping in the right position for the particular injury or chronic aches/pains that you’re dealing with.
Let me explain the best positions for the most common back, neck and shoulder injuries:
Your Neck/Upper Back. Neck strains, stiffness, tightness are most often caused by sitting at a desk too long, with poor posture, or too high computer keyboards. They can also be caused by doing work where your arms are continuously extended over your head. This causes your neck and upper back muscles to be hunched up towards your ears most the day. It’s a perfect way to tighten and kink muscles so much that they compress the nerves around them and cause burning pain and stiffness.
Sleeping flat on your back with a thin pillow beneath your head keeps your head and neck in a neutral position. This prevents strain from the weight of your head that may pull muscles downward or further pinch nerves by angling everything upward. A neutral position allows you body to return to its proper alignment. It also helps your nasal airway to open so you can breathe better while sleeping.
You can also use a contoured S-shaped memory foam pillow. It keeps your head cradled between the two adjacent ridges with your neck in the middle so that nothing pushes against it. You can sleep either on your back or side and be supported. I don’t recommend sleeping on your stomach with a neck injury.
Mid to Lower Back. These parts of the back are the most susceptible to injury. Pain and stiffness in these areas respond to elevating the knees. To do this successfully, you need to lie on your back and put a good size pillow under your knees. Use a very flat pillow beneath your head, or none at all.
You can also buy a sleep wedge pillow that elevates your knees and lower legs while lying on your back. You can find these at medical supply stores. They take the pressure off your mid-lower back. You can also try lying on your side and raising your knees to your chest, as in a fetal position. This position opens up your spinal canal and allows disks to rehydrate and re-align to their proper position to help un-pinch nerves. You can also place a pillow between your knees to help take pressure off the back as well.
You may also find a “pregnancy pillow”, gives you more support and comfort. These are full-body pillows that pregnant women use to support their stomach while side sleeping. I don’t recommend sleeping on your stomach with back pain, especially the lower back, as it puts more pressure on the area and can worsen pain.
Your Shoulders. If you play contact sports, baseball, soccer, hockey, or basketball, or you work out with very heavy stationary weights, you’re at higher risk for rotator cuff injuries. The rotator cuff is that band of muscles that encircles your shoulder joint and keeps the joint in place. Bursitis and/or arthritis can also set in and create chronic joint pain, especially as you get older.
Sleeping on aching, painful shoulders can be tricky especially if you like to sleep on your side. First rule, don’t try to sleep on the painful side. And don’t fall asleep with your arms above your head as the shoulder can lock up on you. Again, using a fairly flat pillow beneath your head, while lying on your back, is going to give your shoulder area the most space for blood to flow properly, reduce inflammation, and prevent further pressure and pinching.
Getting a good night’s sleep is important for everyone. It’s even more important when you have an injury that your body is trying to heal. Help one of your most important allies in recovery – sleep – by following good sleep mechanics. The proper sleep positions for your injury will help you reduce pain, stiffness and heal much faster.
Mark Bromson, M.D.
Best Sleep Positions for Aches and Pains, https://www.yahoo.com/health/the-best-sleep-positions-for-all-your-aches-and-109217597242.html
Sleeping with Neck Pain, http://www.necksolutions.com/neck-pain-sleeping.html
Sleeping Positions for Neck and Shoulder Pain, http://exercisesforshoulderpain.com/Sleeping-Positions-for-Neck-and-Shoulder-Pain.html