As osteopaths, we are frequently asked what sleep position is best. There are a few rules to stick to when you’re waking up with pain, however, if you are getting a sound night’s sleep we would advise you not to worry about it too much...unless you look like this guy!
Many people over-hype sleeping positions to up-sell everything from the pillows they stock to deals they have done with bed suppliers. In our experience, if you are sleeping well and not in pain there is no need to stress.
If you are waking up with pain however please keep reading as we have a few tips for you.
Can sleep position cause headaches?
One very common type of headache is a “cervicogenic” headache. This means a headache which is caused by dysfunction in your neck. Patients frequently wake up with a headache which eases throughout the day.
In this instance, it may be useful to review your pillow height. Joints are at their happiest when they are in a neutral position. So if you stack your pillows too high or too low and end up sleeping with your head at a strange angle it can definitely increase your chance of waking up sore.
The best way to determine if your pillow is the right height depends on whether you lay on your side or your back and is different in each case.
If you are a side sleeper you need to be sure the space between your shoulder and you neck is nicely filled with a supportive pillow. Your head should not be angled up or down. If you are broad in the shoulders this may require two pillows, depending on their thickness.
Similarly if you sleep on your back you want the pillow to keep your head in neutral with no upward or downward movement. This means when you lay down your ears are in line with the middle of your shoulders. In our experience, this is far lower than people usually rest and will require a thinner pillow.
Obviously there are exceptions to this, like in people with a very curved upper back, or hyper-kyphosis, which may need a little extra padding if sleeping on their backs. But for most people you’ll probably find lowing your pillow a little will help.
It is important to note that sleep position alone is rarely the root cause of your pain unless you’ve slept awkwardly just once and woken with pain. It’s far more likely there is something else going on in the tissues of your neck, which we recommend you see an osteopath about, but checking your pillow height may help you control symptoms a little better.
Can sleep position cause back pain?
As with the above, your sleep position is unlikely to be the root cause of your back pain, however making sure your mattress is right for you can go a long way to easing your symptoms. Remember that the general rule of thumb is that if you a getting a sound night’s sleep you don’t need to worry too much, your body will wake you if it is too sore.
However if you have something like arthritis or a bit of early wear and tear in your spine you will want to make sure your bed is not too hard or too soft.
Too soft is probably the more common problem as people keep their mattresses far too long. If your bed is too soft the spine will rest in a curved position all night which is not the best for optimum blood flow and joint function. Remember joints are happiest in neutral.
If you think your mattress is too hard it probably is. You’ll know pretty quickly as your sleep will be fairly interrupted. This is why we always recommend buying a mattress with a shop that offers a decent return policy. It’s often not until you get it home and sleep on it for a while that you realise it’s not right for you.
Why do I get morning pain and stiffness?
Are you are following all the sleep position advice to the letter and still waking up with morning pain and stiffness? There are some simple explanations.
Many people we treat ask “why do I get more pain and stiffness in the morning?” This is due more to the fact that you are not moving much for eight hours. If there is inflammation in your tissues it will build up throughout the night.
Inflammatory chemicals usually like a little bit of movement to help they drain away. This is why when you have arthritis, for example, gentle movement can help and patients frequently get flare ups if they do too little or too much.
When you first wake up in the morning and haven’t moved for hours the body will be stiff and possible painful for anywhere between a few seconds to hours, depending on the severity of your condition, until you get moving.
We suggest instead of leaping out of bed you stay lying down and do some gentle, mid-range movement of your joints. What do we mean by mid-range? Basically it means moving a little without fully flexing, extending or twisting your joints.
For example if your low back is sore you can lay face-up, bend you knees so your feet are on the bed and rotate your knees a little side to side…make sure you don’t go as far as you can…a little bit goes a long way.
Or if your hands are stiff gently flex and extend your fingers and wiggle them around. These simple movements may be enough to ease some of your initial discomfort when your feet hit the floor.
What is the best sleep position for disc bulge?
We are including a special section for what is the best sleep position for disc bulges simply because we know a little secret that many people seem amazed by when we treat them for disc bulges. It’s called the astronaut position. What you do is lay flat on your back and rest your lower legs on a pile of cushions (large square foam cough cushions are perfect for this job) so that your hips and knees are at ninety degrees.
This is often the only relief people with severe disc injury can get, and while sleeping like this may seem a little impossible, you may be amazed at what you can do if it’s the only way to get relief in bed.
While all these tips are a great start remember you should never put off getting medical advice about your pain. Pain is there to tell you something is wrong and if it doesn’t ease quickly you should seek professional help.