We get quite a few questions about sleeping positions and the impact sleeping has on the spine. I think it’s important we understand one fact right off the start: when we are talking about posture and the spine, we are discussing the compressive forces of gravity as it relates to an upright position.
When we are standing or sitting, or when we are moving in an upright position, gravity and the weight of our body IS the stress being applied to the spine and IS the stress that needs to be managed with posture.
When we move from an upright position to a lay down position (sleeping), we change the relationship of this stress.
No longer do we have the compressive forces acting on the spine from gravity but rather we have gravity impacting our spines at 90 degrees to upright. This is a very different scenario.
Each and every day the body is compressed by gravity, but each and every night (assuming you sleep at night) the spine goes through a natural decompression state. This process as it relates to the spinal discs is knows as Imbibition. Imbibition is the NATURAL decompression process of the discs that counterbalances the compressive forces that it receives throughout the day.
The reason that this is important to understand, is that the ideas that surround posture and therefore the positioning of the spine are not as relevant in a decompressive state as they are in a compressive state. Therefore, it will always be more impactful to really consider posture during your upright day rather than your lay down night.
That being said, here are a couple of important considerations for sleeping position:
1. Stomach sleeping
The reason that avoiding stomach sleeping can be a good idea is that stomach sleeping involves heavy rotation of the head and neck. Any time you put a joint and muscle system into a stressed position for long periods of time, you increase the possibility of strain. A neutral position of the head and neck such as with side lying or laying on your back is going to reduce rotation tension in the neck.
Suggestion: If you are a stomach sleeper, but want to reduce tension on the neck, try hugging a pillow to the same side of the body that you’re turning your head. In this scenario, you can still get the same sensation of being a stomach sleeper, but by propping up the shoulder/torso you avoid having to have to turn your head as aggressively and hopefully reduce tension in the neck muscles and joints.
2. Comfort should be your guide
When it comes to sleeping position, I can’t seem to get away from the idea that there is no one perfect position for sleeping but that YOUR ACTUAL COMFORT with sleeping positions or use of pillows/mattresses, should be a major source of feedback in determining if it’s right for you. No two bodies are the same. If it feels right, it’s likely to be a strong indicator that for you, it’s working. Remember the goal for sleep is to get to sleep, and being comfortable and relaxed tends to be a prerequisite for falling asleep.
3. Develop a routine for sleeping
Often sleeping is taken for granted in that it’ll just be there are the end of a hard day. Spend some time talking to someone that is unable to get a full night’s sleep and you understand that that’s just not the case. Preparing to go to sleep makes a huge difference. Turn off your devices an hour before you plan on closing your eyes. There’s no doubt that intense blue light prior to bed is only stimulating the eyes and disrupting the natural circadian sleep cycles.
Try “unwinding” before bed to prep your body, and realize that watching an action packed intense movie minutes before turning off the lights is not unwinding the nervous system but rather ramping it up. It actually makes sense that if you stimulate your brain with intense stress right before bed that it wouldn’t want to fall sleep. You’ve put it on guard and it needs to therefore monitor the situation for safety before shutting down for the night.
If you are struggling with comfort when sleeping, I would suggest considering it from the perspective that the tension in your body and spine that you bring to bed is a reflection of the tension in your body that was developed over the day that is ending. I would focus on your upright posture during the day to try to bring a more relaxed and comfortable body to bed rather than try to fix the problem with a sleeping position. There’s way more bang for your buck concentrating on posture during the day, and you’ll discover that questions about pillows and sleeping positions will become a thing of the past as you’ll wake up feeling like last night’s sleep was GREAT!
Foundation Training is one of my favourite resources for posture considerations. We run a monthly introduction class at the office; give us a call for the next date 250-386-5433.