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Is Your Sleeping Position Causing Excess Back Pain?

Chronic back pain plagues woman after waking upIf you’re someone who has experienced recurring back pain, then you know how difficult it can be to get a great night’s sleep. Fortunately, there are several known sleep positions which can provide some measure of relief from the pain of an aching back.

Back pain clinical studies have shown that sleep issues and back pain can exacerbate each other, but researchers still have much to learn. “There is not a lot of science behind sleep as a major cause of back pain,” explains Santhosh Thomas, DO, the associate medical director of the Richard E. Jacobs Medical Center and a spine specialist at the renowned Cleveland Clinic.

(Have you ever considered taking part in a clinical trial for back pain? You can learn more about our studies by clicking here.)

Sleep deprivation is known to affect mood and functional ability.The current theory is that people who are more prone to sleep problems are also more likely to experience back pain issues. “Sleep deprivation is known to affect mood and functional ability and negatively impacts perception of pain,” states Dr. Thomas. The pain will negatively affect the quality of one’s sleep, making it much more likely that you’ll experience frequent waking or even some insomnia.

One large-scale study of 3,100 people in Asia found that 32 percent of those with low back pain had significant sleep problems due to their recurrent symptoms. For this study, researchers formed a baseline of waking at least twice during the night for sleep problems. They also observed that the participants’ symptoms were the worst between 7 pm and midnight. Higher levels of pain equated to more issues sleeping.

Dr. Thomas notes that several common sleeping positions tend to put pressure on the lower back, neck, shoulders, hips and knees. These can all exacerbate your back pain by the morning and over the long run. Adjusting your sleep position will take some experimentation, but Dr. Thomas has a few tips that you can use to improve your quality of sleep.

Worst Ways To Sleep With Back Pain

Stomach sleeping means that your neck is rotatedDo you tend to fall asleep on your stomach at night? Unfortunately, this position tends to be one of the most common offenders. “Typically, sleeping on your stomach can flatten the natural curve of your spine, putting some additional strain on your back muscles,” says Dr. Thomas.

“Additionally, stomach sleeping means that your neck is rotated, which can actually result in back pain between your shoulders,” claims Paul Grous, MSPT, a spine specialist and registered physical therapist at Philadelphia’s Good Sheppard Penn Partners.

Grous notes that the biggest problem could be not getting enough activity during the day.

“My opinion of the biggest causative factor for back pain in our population is the amount of time we spend sitting during waking hours,” explains Grous. “We sit too long and we don’t sit properly — we sit slouched with our backs rounded.”

Any sleeping position has the potential to amplify back pain.We recommend spending as much time standing as you can during the day. There are also a number of exercises that you can use in order to improve your body posture while standing and sitting. Over time, these should help you manage the symptoms of chronic back pain without having to turn to pain relievers every night. Here’s a great resource for improving you posture.

You shouldn’t stress too much about keeping your body in a better sleeping position all night (this could also keep you from getting a good night’s sleep). Most people move around a bit over the course of the night. This is beneficial as it helps to relieve excess pressure on the back. “Any sleeping position has the potential to amplify back pain if you maintain it for too long,” adds Dr. Thomas.

The Best Sleeping Positions for Back Pain Relief

Comfort is an essential part of getting a restful night’s sleep. There are a few modifications which while simple can relieve a lot of pressure that you’ve been putting on your back at night. Here’s what we recommend based on several popular sleeping positions:

  • Stomach Sleepers – Try placing a pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen to help remove some of the strain on the back.
  • Back Sleepers – Placing a pillow under the knees will allow the spine to maintain its natural curve.
  • Side Sleepers – By drawing the legs and knees up towards your chest slightly and placing a pillow between your knees, you’ll remove some of excess strain on the back.

Finding the Best Sleep Spot

Man sleeping in a poor position for his backMake sure that you experiment with these different sleeping positions in order to find the one that is most comfortable. Dr. Thomas even recommends spending one or two nights in a hotel if you’ve been diagnosed with chronic low back pain. This way you can try a variety of different mattress and pillow combinations to find the one that works best for you. There are also some mattress companies which provide an option to try before you buy.

“If that is not an option, perhaps sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag may mimic a firm surface, and sleeping on a couch may mimic a softer surface,” suggest Dr. Thomas.

Don’t forget that excess strain on the neck during sleep could be exacerbating your back pain problems. Contoured pillows could do the trick, or you might want to try sleeping with less pillows (if you’re currently sleeping on a stack of them).

People living with chronic low back pain may not be able to adequately relieve their worst symptoms without the appropriate medical intervention. Just be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor if any of your symptoms ever start to worsen after you’ve improved your sleeping position.

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