Sleep Positions

Hillary Zumbrun, PTA

Starting your day with a restful night’s sleep is the ideal situation. However, many people struggle with pain either while falling asleep, wake up due to pain throughout the night, or have trouble getting out of bed in the morning due to pain. My rule of thumb is; if you go to bed with pain, it may be caused by something you did throughout your day. If you wake with pain in the morning, it may be caused by how you slept overnight. Simple tricks using pillows improve alignment may help ease those pains, and help you get a restful night’s sleep. Ideas listed below are simply that, ideas. If any one of these ideas keeps you from sleeping well, feel free to go back to your normal sleep positions or modify your positions more gradually. It is better to get restful, healing sleep than change positions if it is not helpful to you.

Back Sleepers

If you have neck pain when sleeping on your back, try to make sure your pillow is pulled up closely under your head, touching your neck and shoulders. This provides proper support for the cervical spine, keeping it in a neutral position. If you have low back pain, I recommend using a medium-sized pillow under both knees. This encourages the knees to bend slightly, taking pressure off the low back and decreasing compression of the spine. If you have been a patient at our clinic, you may have noticed each therapist has a foam wedge (pictured) for use under your knees while lying on your back. These can be purchased online typically between $20-$50.


Side Sleepers

Keeping a neutral spine is the primary goal for comfort when sleeping on your side. It is easy to twist, turn, and tuck your legs up into positions that compress or torque your spine unnecessarily. When sleeping on your side, try to pull your pillow in close to your neck, touching your neck and shoulder. This will provide support for your cervical spine, keeping it in a neutral position. Also, try to sleep with a medium-sized pillow between your knees, with your knees bent slightly to keep your hips in alignment. Occasionally, I will see a patient with a body type that exhibits wider hips and a narrow natural waist. With that body type, laying on your side will cause your hip to reach the bed first, with your waist curving downward to meet the bed. Using a small, flat pillow or folded blanket under the natural waist can help support the spine in this position.

Stomach Sleepers

This should not be a category. Please do not sleep on your stomach! Okay, I’m mostly kidding, however there are ways to try to avoid sleeping on your stomach if it is a habit and painful for you. Using one or two medium-sized pillows (I use a king-sized pillow or a long body pillow) lay on your side with the pillows touching your chest and midsection. Resting your top arm on the pillow, pull it in close to your body. You may also rest your top leg on a pillow, with the bottom leg extended. This gives the body the compressed feeling of sleeping on the stomach, without the twist of the neck and body, or compression of the lumbar spine and hips. Please keep your pillow pulled closely under your neck and head, as well as a pillow between your knees if possible.

Hillary Zumbrun, PTA

Hands On therapist since 2014