Whether you have back, neck, or pregnancy pain, your sleep posture makes a big difference in how you feel each morning.
Good posture is a key to a healthy spine, but posture isn’t just about sitting or standing straight. Your sleep posture also has a major impact on your back and neck. While some positions help you feel refreshed come morning, others can leave you stiff, sore, and in pain.
When it comes to finding the best sleeping pose for your back and neck, think neutral. Positions that put your spine in a neutral, or straight, alignment put the least amount of stress on your back and neck. Learn which positions put your spine in a neutral state and those that should be avoided below.
The best sleep position for your spine: on your back
Sleeping on your back is the best for putting your spine in a neutral alignment, but only 8 percent of people sleep in this pose.
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A few strategically placed pillows can boost the benefits of back sleeping. A small pillow underneath your head and neck (but not your shoulders) will help keep your spine straight. Adding a pillow under your knees will provide even more support and comfort, as it encourages your spine to maintain its natural curve.
Though back sleeping is the best for your spine, it has a few drawbacks:
1. It’s not best for those with sleep apnea. Back sleeping may cause the tongue to block the breathing tube, so those with sleep apnea should not sleep on their backs. Instead, they should sleep on their side with legs straight.
2. It’s not best for snorers. Back sleeping can worsen snoring. Those who snore should sleep on their side with legs straight.
3. It’s not best for pregnant women. Pregnant women who sleep on their backs risk developing a myriad of health problems, from back pain to low blood pressure. Plus, the on-the-back position decreases blood circulation to the heart and the baby. The best sleep position during pregnancy is sleeping on the side with legs bent.
The next best option: on your side with legs straight
For those who snore or have sleep apnea — or if you simply find sleeping on your back uncomfortable — side sleeping with your torso and legs straight is a great alternative. This is the ideal sleeping pose for snorers and people with sleep apnea because it keeps your airways open. Adding a small pillow between your legs will also help keep your spine neutral.
In third place: on your side with legs bent upwards
Sleeping on your side with your legs bent upwards — also known as the fetal position — is the most common sleep pose (41 percent of adults sleep this way). Though it’s a popular option, this posture prevents your neck and upper back from reaching a neutral position. The fetal position also promotes an uneven distribution of weight, which can cause sore joints and back pain. You can help reduce your odds of waking up in pain by keeping your bending angle relaxed as opposed to tucking your chin to your chest and pulling your knees up as high as they can go.
While this is the third-best sleep posture for most, sleeping on your side with bent legs is the best sleeping position for pregnant women. It provides the most comfort and safety for a growing abdomen, and sleeping on the left side adds the extra benefits of boosting blood and nutrients to the baby. For added support, pregnant women may add a pillow between their bent legs and knees.
The one sleep position everyone should avoid
Regardless of the type of pain you have, whether it’s low back, neck, joint, or related to pregnancy, sleeping on your stomach is not a good idea. This position puts the most pressure on your spine’s muscles and joints because it flattens the natural curve of your spine. Sleeping on your stomach also forces you to turn your neck, which can cause neck and upper back pain.
While stomach sleeping is best avoided, getting the sleep you need is even more important. If stomach sleeping is the only way you can snooze soundly, you can ease some stress off your back by putting a pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen, and another pillow under your head. If the pillow under your head causes pain, remove that pillow.
Still feeling sleepy?
If you have healthy sleep posture, but you’re still struggling to get a good night’s rest, factors outside of your sleep position may be the culprit. For example, environmental disruptions (such as bright lights in your bedroom) or dietary habits (like eating a large meal before bed) could be interfering with your slumber. Learn about some common sleep thieves and how you can combat them in Sound Sleep Advice for a Healthy Spine.
Raymond Hah, MD is an assistant professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Dr. Hah specializes in the management of patients with neck and back disorders at the USC Spine Center. He has a special interest in minimally invasive surgery.
Christopher C. Ornelas, MD, an assistant professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, is board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Dr. Ornelas, a physiatrist at the USC Spine Center, specializes in the treatment of non-operative spinal disorders.
If you are experiencing back pain or are looking for a second opinion, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit http://spine.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.