We spend about one third of our lives sleeping, so you’d think that it would be something that we would be good at. But many of us have a lot of trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, while others aren’t necessarily doing it in the right position. Though the truth is there isn’t a right or wrong way, there are some positions that are better for some people. Medical conditions can be exacerbated or improved depending on how you sleep, and sometimes sleeping in a specific position can create its own problems.
The first thing that you need to understand is the physical impact of sleep on the body. Not talking about sleep deprivation or restoration of your ability to remain alert – we’re talking about the impact on the musculoskeletal system. In addition to all of the good things that sleep does for your brain, it also restores the body and lets it recover from whatever you’ve put it through during the course of the day. Because when you sleep your body is processing protein back into its muscles, the position that you’re sleeping in can have a very real impact on how you feel the next day when you wake up.
Most people sleep on their side – almost sixty percent of us, with another 17 percent preferring to sleep on our backs and 11 percent on our stomachs. For the other twelve percent there is no particular preference. They change from night to night depending on their mood and how they’re feeling. Once we’ve konked out we all move around. We have to or else we’d develop pressure points. Most of us shift positions about ten or twelve times a night, but some of us move dozens of times.
So what position is good? What position is bad?
Most sleep experts agree that sleeping on your stomach makes you vulnerable to neck strain, while sleeping on your back can be helpful if you suffer from lower back pain but can make people who suffer from digestive problems uncomfortable. It can also wreak havoc on your sleep partner’s rest if you are a snorer. The rule of thumb for body positioning while sleeping is to be certain that you aren’t putting yourself into a position where you are either too compressed or too stretched out. Both can put your joints in harm’s way, especially if you remain in an odd position for the full time that you’re asleep.
Another problem that can come from sleep positioning is when a person constantly lies in the exact same position night after night. Over time this can lead to either compression or stretching and create an uncomfortable pain or even an imbalance in the body. This is one of the reasons that the memory foam mattresses that provide constant pressure along the length of the body have become so popular. The ability to support at every point is instrumental in reducing the risk of pain at pressure points, and frankly so is getting a good night’s sleep. The more comfortable you are and the better the sleep that you get the lower the chances of experiencing joint pain or inflammation.
One thing for people to become aware of is that if they change their normal sleep position it may create a new pain, or inflame an old one. If you suspect that you have shifted your sleep position and are finding yourself facing unaccustomed soreness, try adding multiple pillows for support and see if it improves your situation.
For those who are dealing with specific, known health issues, certain sleeping positions may actually help you deal with your symptoms.
Acid Reflux: For those who suffer from digestive problems such as acid reflux or GERD, the most comfortable position for sleeping is likely to be on your side. When you sleep on your back is when you are most likely to suffer from heartburn symptoms, because when your head isn’t higher than the rest of your body it allows the contents of your stomach to travel up your digestive tract up to the back of your throat. If you have to lay on your back in order to get a good night’s sleep be sure to use a few pillows, or try the old trick of actually propping up the head of your bed using some bricks or books. Remember, gravity is your friend.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): OSA is a potentially dangerous condition that requires attention from a medical professional. If you suspect that you have apnea or if you simply snore, try to avoid sleeping on your back, as it allows the contents of your throat to collapse downwards and block your airway. One out of every ten apnea patients is able to alleviate their symptoms and get a better night’s sleep by simply rolling over and sleeping on their sides, but this doesn’t mean that the problem has gone away. That being said, if you are not an apnea sufferer but simply a person who snores, sleeping on your side will not only stop the soundworks in most cases but also make you much more popular with your sleep partner. Most people have success using pillows to prop them onto their sides, or even rigging a tennis ball onto their sleep clothes to prevent them from sleeping on their backs. If you must sleep on your back, make sure that you have plenty of pillows propping you up.
Back, Neck and Shoulder Pain: If you’re suffering from pain of the back, neck or shoulder you need to let your pain be your guide. For neck pain, sleeping on your stomach is likely to put extra strain on your neck and turning your head makes it even worse. Sleep on your back or side and support your neck with a pillow or towel. For those with shoulder pain, avoid sleeping on the side where the pain is coming from, and try sleeping on your back. For those with back pain, lying on your back usually offers the most neutral, and therefore pain-relieving position, though you may want to draw your knees up or sleep on your side in a fetal position if you suffer from lower back pain.