Most people spend about 1/3 of their lives sleeping (or trying to). Any long period of time spent in an awkward position can cause wear and tear on our muscles and joints. Finding a comfortable sleep posture is one of the best ways to prevent aches & pains from creeping up for no reason and can also prevents flare-ups from old injuries. Yet there is a lot of confusion over which posture is best. As always, it depends on the individual.
The Classic: sleeping flat on the back
This position is generally considered to be one of the safest because it prevents body twisting which jams the joints together and causes irritation. The best way to sleep on the back is to find a pillow that fits your size (ask yourself: when I lie on the pillow, is my head bent forward or extending back? Ideally a a pillow should keep your neck neutral: not forward or back and supporting the sides of your head so it isn’t turning side to side). For people with lower back pain, it is also helpful to put a small pillow or rolled up towel under the knees which takes away tension from the lower back.
The Comfort Zone: sleeping on the side
People most likely gravitate to this because it is a variation of the fetal position which brings a sense of comfort and protection. It can be very safe for the body when done properly. The danger happens when the pillow for the head is too small or doesn’t support the cervical spine, causing pressure on the neck. It can also cause shoulder pain when the weight of the body gets jammed into the shoulder. Find a pillow big enough so that when you’re lying on the side it fills the space between the edge of the shoulder and the neck. Some pillows have a small curve along the bottom edge which provides space for your shoulder so there’s less jamming. Another problem that can arise in this position is lower back or hip pain because knees tend to knock together and put strain on the pelvis. To fix this, find a small pillow or rolled up blanket/towel and place it between the knees.
The No-No: stomach sleeping
There is only one position that is no good and should be avoided entirely: stomach sleeping. This comes as bad news for people who have been sleeping this way for years and now find it difficult to sleep any other way out of habit. The problem is that there’s no way to do this position without the neck twisting in an unnatural way and hyper-extending the lower back which can cause pinching. A good way to gradually break the habit of belly sleeping is to use an extra-long/body pillow to wrap your body around so that you’re practically lying face down but doing it in a way which prevents the neck from twisting and keeps the back more neutral. Over time, you can gradually wean yourself to a side-sleeping position.
The bottom line is that getting quality sleep is the most important thing and so you must first and foremost be comfortable. But if you can be comfortable AND sleep in a way which will prevent arthritis or chronically tight muscles, you must give it a try! If you now recognize that your sleep position isn’t the best, try to make some small changes until you get used to the correction and eventually you won’t want to sleep any other way. The first step is to make sure you have a pillow that fits you and your preferred sleep position. After that, the rest should fall into place. Sweet dreams!