Best Sleeping Posture: Should I Be Sleeping Without Pillows? | READ this article to learn the difference between good and bad sleeping posture, whether you should use a pillow and how your sleeping position can cause problems for your health!
What is sleeping posture?
Sleeping posture, put simply, is the position or posture in which you sleep. This posture may typically be on your back, side or front, but each has its own variations.
This sleeping posture may be influenced by differences in our body shapes or underlying conditions, but it is most commonly due to our habits.
What are the most common sleeping positions?
The most common sleeping positions are: front, back and side. Each has their advantages and disadvantages we will list below.
Front Sleeping posture
Research shows this is the sleeping posture for at least 7% of the population, but it is suggested the number is higher but people don’t tell honestly their sleeping position!
Front sleeping may feel comfortable because of the shape of someone’s body or because it shifts any fleshy obstructions in the airways. However, this is the least viable sleeping posture.
Sleeping on your front requires the head to be turned to one side or the other. This will put a twist in the neck and create tension in the spine, all the way down to the lower back. This will unevenly strain the nerves, ligaments, muscles and joints throughout the body.
The head and spine should remain neutral during sleep so the messaged between the brain and body can flow properly.
For example, the head turned to the right will stretch the left neck muscles, which pull up the shoulder, impinging the joint, changing the angle of the spine, rotating muscles in the mid back and stretching others further down in the lower back! All of these tense muscles will damage the nerves until eventually they produce pain (which may happen far later than the damage occurs).
This increased tension throughout the body injures the nerves, potentially causing nerve pain, headaches, shoulder pain, back pain, depression, digestive issues and poor posture. This can slow the rate of recovery for athletes.
Back Sleeping posture
Sleeping on your back is generally favourable, but it may not be for everyone.
Let’s start with the good stuff. Back sleep posture will help to keep the head and spine neutral, as long as the head isn’t rotated to one side. This prevents the nerves being pinched and damaged, which will affect function throughout the body. This also keeps the muscles even and prevents imbalanced tension.
Now for the bad stuff. For people who experience low back pain, back sleeping position (also known as supine) can make this worse. It can intensify heartburn (reflux) for some sufferers and may increase snoring. If you have a pre-existing condition, such as apnea, it would be advisable to check with a doctor first. People who are overweight may find back sleeping posture difficult on their breathing.
Side Sleeping posture
For many, side sleeping positions can be the most comfortable as they allow some variation and changing through the night, switching from side to side. This is the most common of the sleeping positions, with some potential health benefits.
Side sleepers are less likely to snore, as long as they don’t curl up too much into a fetal sleeping posture which may restrict diaphragmatic action.
Some studies suggest side sleeping in animals improves the brain function by allowing better clearing of waste products.
This can also be helpful for stomach and heart problems. For reflux sufferers, it can be relieving to sleep in the left side. Conversely, heart failure has been shown to be anecdotally relieved by sleeping on the back or right side.
What’s bad about side sleeping positions? Issues in the knees and hip can be worsened if there is no pillow or bolster between the legs. Side sleeping can also enforce a poor slumped posture, especially if the person sleeps in the foetal position.
What’s the best sleeping position?
Now for everyone’s favourite hack, the best sleep position! Each type of healthy sleep positions has its merits and we will go through each.
Disclaimer: the best sleeping position can be variable dependent on the person and their condition. If they are unsure they should test this out or consult their physician before committing to a particular sleep posture.
Front – bad posture to sleep
A good posture of sleeping on your front is simple, don’t! As mentioned above, sleeping on stomach will rotate the neck and spine, tensioning the joints, nerves and muscles. Prolonged sleeping on stomach posture will not just cause symptoms and pain, but also have a detrimental effect on overall health and wellness. Avoid at all costs. Save sleeping on stomach for massage beds.
Back – good posture to sleep
A good posture of sleeping on your back is to:
- Keep the head in a neutral position, not rotating left or right
- Have the head and neck in a neutral position in relation to your body; not leaning to the left, right, front or back
- Have something under your legs if you need to. This will help to raise them and can reduce some of the pressure if you suffer from back pain
Side – good posture to sleep
A good posture of sleeping on your side will help to protect your neck and spine. Here is a checklist for sleeping on your side:
- Keep the head looking straight in a neutral position, not rotating left or right
- Don’t have too many or too thick a pillow, which would make the head lean up or down. Keep the head perpendicular to the shoulders and in alignment with your spine.
- If possible use a contoured pillow with more support for your neck
- Have a pillow between your knees, creating space and keeping the hips balanced
Which pillow for sleep? Which mattress for sleep?
Unfortunately, there are truly no magic pillows or mattresses. Even pillows and mattresses with special technology cannot fix sleeping posture if it is wrong to begin with.
Many people turn to pillows and mattresses if they are experiencing pain or symptoms. Some may offer some short term relief, however if there is an existing issue in the body or poor sleep posture, the problem will return.
Here are some general rules for pillows:
- Not too thin, not too thick. The pillows should allow you to keep your head in a neutral position when sleeping while offering adequate support.
- Replace your pillow every 18-24 months
- No lumps. If the pillow has developed lumps it is uneven and can disrupt this good posture while you sleep.
- If possible, have a pillow with a contour to support the neck
Here are some general rules for mattresses:
- Pick a mattress that is firm while still being comfortable, if it is too soft your body will dip in the mattress, ruining the sleeping posture
- Invest in good quality. Over 10 years of 7 hours sleep a night this is over 20,000 hours spent on your bed (not including watching Netflix!)
- Flip your mattress regularly
- Replace it every 10 years
Should I sleep without pillows?
When determining whether to sleep without pillows, the question comes back to posture. Is the head neutral? Is this a good sleeping posture?
If you have a very straight spine and posture it is possible you may not need a pillow, however the vast majority of people will be more beneficial with a pillow to help support the head and keep the spine in neutral. See above to assess your posture.
If you are choosing sleep without pillows due to symptoms, such as pain or tension, please visit your Chiropractor or other trained physician to assess your condition.
Sleeping positions for back pain
Back pain has become increasingly common in modern society with the advent of seated jobs, desks and screens. If you experience back pain please consult a Chiropractor or other professional. While receiving their help, try these tips while sleeping:
- Always avoid sleeping on your front
- Sleep on your side. If on your side, have a pillow or bolster between your legs
- If sleeping on your back, have a pillow under the legs
- Ensure the head is always in a neutral position. Often a poor neck posture has caused or attributed to the back pain
Consult your Chiropractor if this problem continues.
Best position for neck pain
Neck pain is worrisome and is a precursor to more sinister conditions, such as migraines, vertigo or neurological problems. If you experience neck pain please consult a Chiropractor or other professional. While receiving their help, try these tips while sleeping:
- Always avoid sleeping on your front
- Sleep on your side. Keep the head in a neutral position. Don’t have the head leaning to the left or right.
- If sleeping on your back, keep the head neutral, not leaning too far forward, backward
Consult your Chiropractor if this problem continues.
What about neck pain with pillow?
If the pain persists, check again the position of your head. Is it neutral? Are you keeping good posture?
If this is not possible with the current pillow(s), change them to achieve this neutral position. However, if you are able to keep good posture but the neck pain continues, there may be an issue in the neck. No pillow or mattress will be able to correct an internal problem. If this is the case, please visit a trained medical professional, such as a Chiropractor.
Still having problems?
If you are still experiencing issues even when abiding by the above advice, there may be an issue with the anatomy of the neck itself, which will not be corrected with any sleep position or fancy pillows. There may be some issues with your daily posture which affect your sleep, especially if you are working from home. If this is the case we would recommend seeing a Chiropractor, particularly a doctor that specialises in the Upper Cervical spine. These doctors are experts and improving the function of the neck so you can have a comfortable and restful nights sleep.
In conclusion, stop sleeping on stomach posture and keep the head neutral. Whether you feel better on your back or side, keep the head neutral, so there is no rotation and the head is aligned with the body, not leaning left, right, forward or backward. Try to imagine your head balanced on your body, the same as it would be when you are standing up straight walking around.
Maintain this one principle and it will help to guide your sleeping posture for the side or back and protect your overall health.
Since 2013, Upper Cervical Chiropractor, Dr. Shaan Rai helped patients achieve greater health, relocating to Singapore in 2016 and founding Vitality Chiropractic Centres. He has an impressive track record in providing relief and solutions for people who experience nerve system problems, such as headaches, migraines, dizziness, vertigo or neurological conditions.
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