You can do everything within your power to protect your spine during the day—sit and stand with proper posture, alternate between sitting and standing at your desk, using correct form when lifting weights, and use a backpack instead of a shoulder bag—but your unconscious hours can undo a lot of your hard work. That’s right—your sleeping position at night can have a huge impact on your overall spinal health.
There’s much discussion online about how to get more sleep or to get better, more restful sleep. But you don’t hear as much about how the position you sleep in affects your health, even though a poor sleeping position can cause everything from heartburn to wrinkles—and, of course, neck and back pain. Ever woken up with a stiff neck or a sore back? You can blame your sleeping position.
The position you sleep in at night plays a big role in your spine and neck health. Some positions can help prevent you from developing back problems, while others can help increase comfort if you already suffer from chronic back pain. In fact, according to the Global Burden of Disease study, the most common cause of back pain isn’t serious medical conditions—it’s lifestyle factors, such as awkward sleeping positions!
Read on to learn which sleeping positions are the best for your back—and which are the worst.
GOOD: Sleeping on Your Side With a Pillow
If you sleep on your side already, you can count yourself in good company. The vast majority of people report sleeping on their side. With the weight of popular opinion behind this option, it may come as no surprise that it’s good for your back.
Positioning a pillow between your legs helps to align your spine, hips, and pelvis for a comfortable night’s sleep. Note that the pillow you rest your head on should also be thick enough to bring your neck into alignment with your spine.
BAD: Sleeping on Your Stomach
Stomach sleeping is widely agreed to be the worst sleeping position for your back and spine. Sleeping on your stomach does not support spine alignment and puts extra pressure on your joints. It also causes you to twist your neck into an awkward position in order to breathe.
If you find yourself naturally gravitating to stomach sleeping (you’ll know that you do if you keep waking up on your stomach, no matter what position you fall to sleep in), place a pillow under your hips and pelvis to help relieve some of the pressure on your back.
GOOD: Sleeping on Your Back
Opinions are mixed on the benefits of sleeping on your back. Many people say sleeping on your back is the best position for spine and neck wellness, because your weight is evenly supported by the mattress, so you aren’t putting stress on any pressure points. You also aren’t contorting your neck into any weird angles.
However, sleeping on your back puts a cumulative 50 pounds of pressure on your spine, from the weight of gravity. That can be bad news for people who already have back pain. Back sleeping also leads to an increase in snoring and sleep apnea symptoms.
If you’re a back sleeper, consider placing a pillow underneath your knees to achieve optimal spinal alignment by preserving the natural curve of your spine, use a pillow under your head that supports the back of your head, and make sure you’re sleeping on a supportive mattress.
OKAY: Sleeping in Fetal Position
“But I thought you said sleeping on your side was good?” True, it is. But while 41% of adults prefer sleeping in fetal position (according to the U.K. Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service), it does no favors for your spine and neck alignment, and does not evenly distribute your body weight. Sleeping in fetal position may cause you to wake up on many mornings with cricks in your neck or an aching lower back.
The bottom line is that you should always listen to your back. If a position isn’t comfortable, change positions! Just because a position is recommended doesn’t mean it will be feel good for you. Also pay attention to the position you usually wake up in—that’s the one your body is gravitating to during the night. It’s easier to optimize a natural position than it is to try to train your unconscious body to change its habits!