The Best Sleeping Positions for Your Neck and Spine
Your body doesn’t shut down when you sleep. The night is a regenerative time. Our bodies are mending and rejuvenating so that when we wake up we feel refreshed and ready to take on the day. That’s not always automatic, though. When it comes to back and neck pain, your body needs a little help from you to get things right.
The position in which you sleep has a direct impact on your spine health. Most of us will wake up at some point in our lives with neck or back pain and oftentimes our sleeping position is the culprit. What can we do to fix it? In short, the way to ensure a happy spine is to keep it neutral. Neutral means that your spine is straight. This starts with your head and neck and goes all the way down. Even things like having your hips/pelvis tilted one way can in turn twist your spine.
Below is a breakdown of the four most basic sleeping positions.
The Overall Best: On your back. Sleeping on your back evenly distributes weight throughout your body and avoids unnatural or unnecessary curves in the spine. Use a small pillow underneath the head and neck (not shoulders) to keep everything in alignment. Even better, a small cylindrical pillow in the crook of your neck supports your neck and keeps your head neutral on the mattress. Do note, though, that this sleeping position can cause some people to snore.
Runner-Up: On your side, with your legs stretched. This is a great alternative to sleeping on your back, especially if you’re prone to snoring. Putting a thin pillow between your legs can help align your spine, hips, and pelvis. Still pay attention to the pillow under your head. It should only be thick enough to create a straight line from your head and neck down through your spine. Your shoulders should not be on the pillow.
Not So Great: On your side, with your legs curled up towards the chest. This does not provide spine alignment for the shoulders and neck. It also does not evenly distribute weight throughout your body and can lead you to waking up in the morning with back pain.
One to Avoid: On your stomach. This position doesn’t support spine alignment and puts pressure on your joints. In addition, because you can’t breathe through your pillow, your head is forced to the side, twisting your neck.
These are only the most general sleeping positions. As we all know, there are a thousand other ways to position ourselves at night. So how do you tell a good sleeping position from one that will leave you with back and neck pain? As mentioned earlier, the most important question you should ask yourself when you lie down at night is “Are my head, neck, and spine all in a neutral position?” If they are, chances are pretty good you’ll wake up to healthy spine.
Casey McClone, MD
Board Certifications in Family Medicine and Sports Medicine. Dr. McClone specializes in treating musculoskeletal pain for patients of all ages with ultra-sound guided injections.