Can Switching Your Sleep Position Ease Back Pain?

While back pain can adversely affect your ability to sleep well, certain sleep positions can make things worse. On the other hand, other sleep positions may provide relief for your pain.

Although back pain and sleep issues are linked, the connection is not fully understood. Spine specialist Santhosh Thomas, DO, MBA of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says the link between sleep and back pain is not well understood.

It is believed that those with sleep problems have issues with back pain. “Sleep deprivation is well known to affect mood and function as well as negatively impact perceptions of pain,”

A person’s degree of pain, in turn, can affect the quality of their sleep, as the National Sleep Foundation states, leading to a lighter sleep state as well as more frequent wakings.


There’s a relationship between the characteristics of pain, mood, and ability to function, and the results of this study suggest that a good night’s sleep is related to the improvement of these symptoms at least temporarily.

Worst Sleep Positions for Back Pain

You can try a few tricks to help eliminate lower back pain, Thomas points out. There are no one-size-fits-all sleep positions for kicking back pain, but you can check out a few alternatives to try.

Sleeping on your stomach is as bad as sleeping back pain on your back. “Typically sleeping on your stomach flattens your spine, thereby straining your back muscles,” Thomas says.

Paul Grous, physical therapist and spine specialist at Penn Therapy & Fitness in Woodbury Heights, New Jersey, says stomach sleeping can result in neck pain or back pain between your shoulders.

It’s normal for your body to move a bit while you sleep, and that’s a good thing because a little movement can help relieve pressure on your spine. “Any sleeping position can be detrimental to your back health if you stay in it too long,” Thomas says.

Grous adds that the real culprit may not be sleep position but your daily activity — or a lack of it.

“I think the biggest occurrence of back pain is the amount of time waking humans spend sitting during the day,” he explains. “We sit too much, and we don’t sit properly. We sit slouched with our backs rounded.”

To help ease back pain at night, try to vary your posture as much as possible when standing and sitting during daylight hours.

Sleep Positions That Help Relieve Back Pain

Getting comfortable is the first important step to getting a good night’s sleep. Thomas suggests you take a load off your back by changing your usual sleep position:

  • If you’re a back sleeper: Put a pillow under your knees to allow your spine to maintain its natural curve.
  • If you’re a stomach sleeper: Put a pillow under your lower abdomen and pelvis to ease back strain.
  • If you’re a side sleeper: Draw your legs up slightly toward your chest and sleep with a pillow (a full body pillow can be comfortable) between your knees.

The Right Mattress and Pillow for Sleep

Thomas says that individual preference and comfort are key factors when picking your mattress and pillow. Some people prefer the firmness of a harder mattress, while others prefer a softer mattress. He suggests staying in a hotel with options for guests to purchase pillows and mattresses so that they can try before buying. Or,

try out a bed overnight at your local mattress store. “If that is not possible, it may help to sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag so that you mimic a firm surface. A couch may also help to mimic a softer surface,” Thomas says.

Grous says that some people may find it helpful to use a contoured pillow to alleviate neck strain or to sleep on just one pillow instead of a stack of several pillows.

You may want to check with your doctor if your back pain or sleep problems don’t get better with just a few changes to your sleep position. If your pain worsens, Thomas suggests meeting with your doctor to check for potentially serious problems.


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