Clients often ask me if there is an ideal sleeping position. Because we’re all so different, there’s no single way that suits everyone. Of course, lying face-down isn’t great for most people because you have to contort your body and particularly your neck to be able to breathe while you sleep! Back-sleeping feels best for some people though there are some drawbacks. Side-sleeping suits the majority, but many people still suffer from pain and stiffness during the night that prevents good sleep. However you CAN improve your comfort in both these positions so you can sleep more deeply and wake feeling more refreshed each day.
And in my opinion sleep is THE BEST cure for pain, so it’s worth finding ways to improve it.
On your back….
Sleeping on your back is great for your muscles and joints because it supports your whole body evenly, with no asymmetrical stress or pressure on any part of the body. But lots of people snore when sleeping on their backs as the tongue can slide back in the mouth or sinus blockage can build up and block the airways. You could use a higher pillow to prevent this, tilting your head forward more, though that can create neck stiffness for some people. Try it to see if it works for you.
But some sleep experts think our brains stay more alert in this position and prevent us from getting enough deep sleep. This is because at the primitive level of our brains developed in the period of human evolution when we could be attacked by predators or enemies when sleeping. So when we lie on our backs our brains think our vital organs are more vulnerable to attack. I learned this from the great little book Sleep by Nick Littlehales (Penguin 2016) if you’re interested to learn more about how to improve your sleep.
On your side….
Side-sleeping is thought to allow our brains to switch off because the arm and leg on the upper side are ready to defend our bodies if suddenly attacked, giving a feeling of protection for our vital organs. For this reason it appears we can sleep even better on our non-dominant side, with the dominant arm and leg uppermost.
If you prefer sleeping on your side there are a few things you can do to improve your comfort and the relaxation of your muscles and joints, leading to deeper sleep and feeling better on waking.
If you get neck pain, notice if you have your head curled forward or tilted back. If so, shift it so your head is aligned with your spine in a more neutral position neither forward or back. Choose a pillow that fits in the space between your head and tip of your shoulder so your head feels supported. There’s no ideal pillow type, as long as it feels comfortable.
For knees, hips & back….
Firstly, if your legs, hips or back get sore through the night, pop a pillow or cushion between your knees. If you need support for the whole lower leg and ankle, use a longer pillow from knee to ankle. This feels quite blissful if you suffer pain in these areas. If you get pelvic pain, see this post for more suggestions.
For shoulders and upper arms….
Next, if you get shoulder pain, place a pillow either in front of your body or behind your back and try resting your arm on the pillow (elbow bent). Choose the position that creates ease or relief in your arm and shoulder. Even small adjustments can make a big difference to your comfort and relaxation.
For forearms & hands….
If you get pain or numbness in your fingers, hands or arms, check your forearm and hand positions. Many people curl their arms and hands up and tuck them under their chin or pillow. Doing this will tighten the muscles behind your shoulders and upper back and you may wake feeling tight and stiff. It also puts a lot of pressure – sometimes for hours – on the ulnar nerve at the elbow joint, which can cause numbness and tingling in the little and ring fingers. Over time this causes weakness and loss of function in these fingers and part of the hand, often requiring surgery. The best way to create relaxation and support for your arms, elbows and hands is to rest your lower arm in a right-angle bend with hand resting on your pillow beside your head (not under it) and your upper arm resting either on your side/upper hip or on a pillow in front or behind, as mentioned above.
How does it feel?
I know it takes a bit of time to get used to a new sleeping position and shifting pillows around in bed. But this is worth it. If you persevere you’ll soon find YOUR ideal sleeping position. How will you know you’ve found it? You’ll begin to notice you’re in a good mood more often and little things don’t annoy you so much. You’ll feel calmer and think more clearly. You’ll notice you have less pain everywhere in your body and fewer niggling health problems. You’ll realise you are sleeping deeper and longer and feeling better when you wake in the morning. I’ve noticed all these things myself. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
I wish you a good night’s sleep!