By VANESSA HAMPTON
I am a side sleeper. Like everyone, I have my nesting routine when I get in bed for the night. I start on my left side and wrap myself around my body pillow. I have a few words of conversation with my husband, give him a kiss goodnight, and settle in. After a few moments, I flip my whole self over, body pillow in tow, and fall asleep in the fetal position with my hands and wrists curled up under my chin. During the night I will alternate between sides but spend most of my time on my right side. We all have some deeply engrained habits and positions for sleep. Some of these are good, but some of these may be causing problems for us during our waking hours.
People tend to fall into three general categories for sleeping positions. Back sleepers, side sleepers, or belly sleepers. Two out of the three of these allow us to put ourselves in a favorable position, one of these…not so much. When evaluating your sleeping position you want to think about the alignment of your spine. We spend hours at a time in the position we sleep in, so if our spine (the entire length from our neck to our tailbone) is out of alignment, it’s going to end up giving us problems. The same applies with our shoulders, wrists, ankles and other joints. Here is a breakdown of sleeping positions and ways you may be able to improve yours.
Back sleeper: This is probably the most ideal sleeping position for your spine, as it allows your spine to be in alignment all night. You want to make sure that your pillow doesn’t prop your head up too far causing too much bend in the neck, or cause your head to tilt back. The neck should be in a neutral position. You may also consider putting a pillow under your knees (like they do when you have a massage) so as to keep the low back in a neutral position. This will also help minimize any sciatica issues that you may be experiencing.
Some back sleepers tend to put one or both of their arms behind their head, however you want to avoid this. Extended arms behind the head can result in shoulder pain from the less-than-ideal position that this places the arm/s in for hours at a time. (Oh, and a warning. While you may love being a back sleeper if you try it, your partner may not. Snoring is common in this position!)
Side sleeper: This is a favorable position to sleep in as long as you are making some adjustments to align the spine. Any physical therapist will tell you that if you are a side sleeper, putting a pillow between your knees will prevent a lot of back and hip issues. The goal is to have an appropriate sized pillow that will align the knee with the hip. I personally prefer a body pillow because it runs the length of the body and is easy to wrap yourself around.
The head position is also an important consideration for a side sleeper. Just like for back sleepers, the pillow height should allow the head to be in a straight line with the spine. Not tilted up or down as compared to the spine. The position of the wrists is also important here. I have a bad habit of curling my hands under my chin in the fetal position. This can lead to nerve issues (carpal tunnel) and other joint problems because of the pressure on the wrist joints all during the night. It is best to try and keep your hands flat during the night (such as in a prayer position) to keep the wrist joints in their neutral position.
Belly sleeper: The not so favorable position. Sleeping on your belly is the least healthy way to sleep. Aside from not having any support for your spine, your neck has no choice but to be turned one way or the other all night (out of alignment with your back) and can limit your breathing. You may have a chronic stiff neck or sore back if you sleep like this. If belly sleeping is the position you are used to, one way to begin changing this habit is to place a pillow under one side of your belly, having one hip raised a bit higher than the other. Gradually, increase the size of the pillow or add an extra pillow to encourage your body to a side position over time.
The quality of sleep we get is important. Making sure that we aren’t causing ourselves back, hip, shoulder, or other joint problems during the night is just as important. Changing what may be years of a sleeping position may not prove easy. Working towards a healthier position for your body, however, may save you expensive doctor, orthopedic, and physical therapy visits. It can also prove to help you feel better and function better in your every day waking hours. Good bye sore neck and stiff back!