How Wrong Sleeping Causes Pain

We all know why sleep is good for you. It relaxes the body, calms the nervous system, regulates breathing and induces the relaxation response. It allows the body some down time to repair itself.

The power of restorative rest and sleep is strong and wide reaching. In fact, symptoms of diseases like fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, chronic fatigue and the flu are decreased while we sleep. But did you know that improper sleep can be a cause of pain and suffering? Poor sleeping posture is the reason for this.

While there are many ways to sleep and many products that allow us to sleep in those ways, there are actually only two healthy positions for engaging in sound slumber.

Let’s review the most common sleeping positions and why they are harmful or helpful to the body.

Stomach Sleeping

Stomach sleepers, well… sleep on their stomachs. Usually they have one or both arms extended over their heads, their face turned either to the left or right side, and one leg is generally bent.

There are so many problems with this posture. First, sleeping with the arms extended over the head raises the shoulders into the neck, causing cramping, poor circulation and pain. It also skews the trapezius muscles and skeletal system, compressing the thoracic outlet where the brachial plexus of nerves from the neck travel down the arms to the hands.

Secondly, when the arms are raised the nerves are irritated and nerve function is either inhibited or excited. It’s a neurological and vascular response that affects the brachial plexus of nerves that travels from the neck and down the arms. The effect is tingling and/or numbness in the arms or hands. Ever make up with pins and needles in the hands or a “dead” arm? This may be why.

Third, sleeping with the neck turned to one side creates unbalanced muscles, wherein one side is hypertonic (contracted) and the other is hypotonic (extended). This leads to neck strain, cramping, pain and often headaches.

Fourth, the bent leg stretches one leg and hip all night, while the other remains prone. Again, we have imbalance that can lead to hip pain and leg pain.

And last, but certainly not least, stomach sleeping offers too little support for the abdomen, allowing the stomach to fall forward and the lumbar region of the back to sag. This can make your gut seem bigger than it is, simply because of poor sleeping posture. It also created spinal compression and lower back pain.

Comfortable or not; this position has got to go.

Back Sleeping

Back sleepers are onto something. The back is one of the two best ways to sleep because it can offer solid support for your entire musculoskeletal system.

Problems arise for back sleepers, however, when they do not place pillows under their knees. If you are lying on your back and your legs are straight, there is insufficient support for the lower back allowing it to arch too high.

If you sleep on your back with one leg bent, you probably experience the same hip, lower back and/or knee strain and pain as do the stomach sleepers who sleep in this way.

You should always place two pillows under your knees for support and one pillow under your head. Keep in mind, too, that pillows are for sleeping support, and not just for comfort.

Your head should be placed squarely on your pillow, and the pillow should be pulled down enough so that it touches your shoulders. If your pillow is not touching your shoulders you run the risk of not supporting the cervical vertebrae and neck muscles and pain can result from spasm or nerve impingement.

Side Sleeping

Side sleeping gets my vote for best sleeping position… if done correctly. To begin, side posture should mimic the fetal position. That is, both knees bent and with hands held close to the body. This is a normal and inherent sleeping posture.

Errors in side sleeping occur when one leg overlaps the other. This causes an imbalance in the hips that can lead to tightness and pain in the hip flexors, IT band, low back and knees.

Another common error is sleeping with hands under or over the head and scrunching the pillow so your head is elevated. Symptoms from this can include neck and shoulder pain, stiffness, headaches, tingly or numbness in the arms or hands.

Side sleeping is the best because it allows the body to maintain a proper and corrective posture for several hours. What you should do is place a pillow between your knees to create proper distance between them, thus keeping the hips in proper balance.

The legs must be parallel, so the hips remain square and there is no strain on the low back. A pillow should be placed under the head and pulled to the shoulder for optimal neck support. The hands should be parallel and below the eyes.

Who knew there was so much to sleeping posture? I’ll bet if you give these corrections a try then after a while your daily neck strain, shoulder pain, headaches, hip and low back pain and arm tingling may just start to correct itself.

Sweet dreams!

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Jenny Thompson

Jenny Thompson is the Director of the Health Sciences Institute and editor of the HSI e-Alert. Through HSI, she and her team uncover important health information and expose ridiculous health misinformation, most notably through the HSI e-Alert.

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  1. Anonymous says

    I wish I could sleep differently. Unfortunately, I can only sleep on my stomach. How am I supposed to change?

  2. Wanda LMT says

    Side sleeping also has it’s hazards. If the chin is tucked down, it puts strain on the brachialplexes and contributes to forward head posture.

    If one has shoulder girdle problems, side-sleeping further complicates them as it rolls the shoulders forward, shortening the pectoralis muscles.

    Forward head and shoulder posture creates a lot of problems in the neck, shoulders and upper back. Therefore, in my opinion back-sleeping is best if the neck is properly supported.

  3. Mercedes Lackey says

    Try “sleeping like a baby”–on your side, fetal position, curled up. Make sure that pillow is supporting your head properly. I used to be a stomach sleeper, but this is so much more comfortable.

  4. roger schwarz says

    For necessary circulation, one’s body needs to keep switching positions during the length of the sleep. One can start out in the side or back position, but how does one maintain that in the way it best be, when turning and switching positions which is natural and automatic for circulation? One starts off correctly but it is defeated at some point in the sleep by turning and switching positions. Any advice or solution?

  5. Anonymous says

    How in the world are you supposed to maintain proper sleep posture all night while you are sound asleep? I’m a stomach sleeper and could fall asleep on my side if I tried, but wake up on my stomach. What do you do?

  6. Kay says

    I’m all the above sleeper. I start off on my back or side. When I wake up, I’m on my stomach or curled up.
    Honestly I started noticing a lot of pain when I started sleeping on my back. I’m going to try the pillow. But I have rls, that won’t last too long.
    But after many nights in the hospital my body must of got into a custom of being on my back.
    My doctor diagnosed me with hip arthirist. And I do have scoliosis but only from time to time do I suffer. Could it be possible I have arthritis in my shoulder of the scoliosis is just affecting that side for some reason?
    Im only 37 and feel like I’m 70 with all these aches and pains. Lol
    Anyone else like me?

  7. Anonymous says

    At my wits end, fed up waking with jaw ache and chipped teeth where I had been clenching/grinding them, painful neck/shoulders and pins and needles in my hands, I tried sleeping on my back even though I hated it.

    I’ve got used to it and don’t mind it so much now. I do roll over in the night a good few times, often waking up when I do this, and adjust the pillow under my knees so it is between my knees and vice versa. Yes, it’s a bit of a drag, but it is making a difference.

    For any other bruxism sufferers, I got my dentist to make a soft mouth guard, being unable to use the harder one. It’s not the nicest thing to wear, but between that and the back sleeping position at least the jaw ache and grinding have reduced enormously, and my hands are ok if I don’t sleep on my side for too long.

  8. Keith says

    Kay I feel just like you only thing is im 24 and feel like im 70. My neck hurts arms and back and for sleeping on my back there is no possiable way. I need help, I also have so much neck pain that im not able to look up or turn my head side to side i really need help

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