The Right and Wrong Ways to Sleep

By Dr. Molly Casey

Woman Sleeping with Mask

Does your sleep position matter? Does it affect your spine and overall health? Is there a reason you should care about whether you are most comfortable on your side, back or stomach? The answer is yes! Your sleep position affects your spine and your health.

It’s estimated that we spend about one-third of our lives in bed. It’s common to hear recommendations on proper sitting positions at work and proper form at the gym, but how much do you pay attention to your sleeping habits? Here are some tips for you.

Don’t Sleep Like This

Don’t sleep on your stomach. It’s as simple as that. When sleeping on your stomach, the natural curves to the spine aren’t supported. The neck is rotated in one direction for hours at a time and the pelvis is tilted forward for prolonged periods. These positions decrease spinal joint range of motion, promote restrictions of those joints, and ultimately decrease optimal functioning of the nervous system.

In my experience, the only fix for those who claim they can only sleep on their stomach is consistency in attempting to break the habit. And yes, that’ll likely involve some loss of sleep for a few nights. If you sleep next to someone, have them wake you any time they notice you’re on your stomach. If you sleep alone, put a tennis ball in a sock and sew that sock onto the front of an old t-shirt. Wear that to bed for a week. Each time you turn over, that tennis ball will wake you and serve as a reminder to get off your stomach. It’s not high-tech, but it works.

Do Sleep Like This

Whether you’re a back or side sleeper, you want to keep your spine totally neutral while in bed. Neutrality means the spine is supported with ease; there is no increased extension or flexion of the normal curves.

Back: When sleeping on your back, the key is to make sure you have proper cervical support from a pillow that has a slight indentation for your head. This allows your neck to rest comfortably and with support while your neck is neutral. Support your lumbar spine by putting a pillow beneath your knees approximately two fist-widths in depth.

Side: The rules for proper support of the neck stay the same here. What you want to pay special attention to is supporting your sacroiliac (SI) joints by placing a pillow between your knees. With a pillow that is one fist-width in depth between your knees, the SI joints are neutral. Without the pillow present, the joints are gapped more than they should be for prolonged periods. Don’t pull your knees too far up into your stomach; this is very similar to the seated position, which most people spend far too much time in during the day.

Variety is good. So, if you’re able to, switch it up. Move from one side to the other. Try sleeping on your back instead of your sides. Sleeping is a habit and can be changed like any other habit. Because of the amount of time you spend in bed, the sleeping habits you have affect your life. Shifting these habits can have a dramatic effect on the health and functioning of your spine. The health and functioning of your spine affects your overall health. So change your sleep and change your health.

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