The Worst Sleeping Positions

The average human spends around 1/3 of his or her life sleeping. Sleep is the time when our body regenerates, and in the case of your muscles and bones, realign and rest in preparation for the new day.

That’s where things go wrong. Because of habit, environment, or other physical factors, many of us choose sleeping positions that actually contribute to stress and strain on our muscles, particularly in the upper body.

“Eighty percent of the population will have back problems at some point in [their] lives oftentimes caused or aggravated by the way they sleep,” Dr. Hooman Melamed, an orthopedic spine surgeon at the DISC Sports & Spine Center in Los Angeles, Calif.,

The top 3 GOOD positions for restful sleep

  1. On your back. Sleeping on your back makes it easier for our head, neck, and spine to align and keep it in a neutral position. No extra pressure or curves are being forced on your muscles and bones. If you are not a “back sleeper” now, it will likely take a week or so for you to get used to the new position, but you will. The one “gotcha” is that back sleepers snore more. If you naturally snore, you might want to move on down the list and find another position.
  2. On your back, arms above your head. Sometimes this is called the “starfish” position. It’s good for your back, but placing your arms up adds pressure on the nerves of the shoulders that can lead to pain. The arms up position also helps digestion and since the stomach is below the esophagus, makes digested substances less likely to come up. Do you snore? If so, keep moving down the list.
  3. Side sleeping (open fetal position or on your side, legs stretched out, like a log). Sleeping on your side is good because it elongates the spine. It also relieves pressure on your nose and uses gravity to elongate nasal passages, which is good for people who snore or those with sleep apnea. Some people sleep with knees bent, others straight as a board.

    While side sleeping is great for snorers and people with some low back pain, it’s not for everyone. Side sleeping on your right side can worsen heartburn. Sleeping on the left side can put slight strain on internal organs like liver, lungs and stomach; although it can lessen acid reflux. Pregnant women should sleep on their left side to optimize blood flow.

    Sleeping on your side correctly means using an ergonomic pillow thick enough so you head doesn’t tilt down (like a memory foam pillow). A small pillow under your waist so your stomach doesn’t curve down and a third pillow between your legs can help too. Some purchase a “boyfriend pillow” (long thin pillow) and hug it while side-sleeping, which helps with stomach and spine alignment.

The top 2 less healthy positions for sleep

  1. On your stomach. Sleeping on your stomach doesn’t support the natural curve of your spine, so it can lead to overarching (and back pain). It also can lead to pain, numbness, and tingling in your neck. Sleeping on your stomach causes your neck to be rotated and muscles tightened, which can lead to stiffness and compromised breathing and circulation. Stomach sleeping should be particularly avoided for anyone suffering from neck or lower back pain. Sleeping on your stomach might alleviate some snoring, but the other side effects (like aches and pains) might not make it worth it. Stomach sleeping is the worst anatomical position for sleep.
  2. Closed fetal position. You would think that the fetal position (side sleeping with knees drawn up completely to chest) would be very good for sleeping. Unfortunately it’s not, and it can lead to neck and back pain, as well as (according to some specialists) wrinkles and sagging breasts. Sleeping on your side with your knees slightly bent (see #3 above) is much preferred.

Most people sleep with one leg or their feet sticking out of the covers. This helps your body regulate temperature. It’s a natural position whichever way you sleep.

If you’re sore when you wake up, it’s a good sign your sleeping posture needs improvement. You might start the remedy by changing your pillow type.  Next look at your mattress (not too soft!). Finally, if you’re sore, go find a qualified massage therapist. They are trained in lessening the stress on your muscles and helping maintain proper muscle tone and alignment. A massage also helps you sleep better.

Sources:

Chapter 6. Women’s Health > Sleep Disorders Harrison’s Online

Maternal Physiology > Sleep Williams Obstetrics, 24e

Women’s Health > SLEEP DISORDERS Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine

Chapter e51. Altitude Illness > Sleep Impairment Harrison’s Online

Chapter 27. Sleep Disorders > Sleep & Circadian rhythms CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Psychiatry, 2e