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I Slept Wrong. Now What?

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

There’s a lot of information out there about the “right” sleeping posture. Some lifestyle websites and magazine quizzes say the right sleeping posture has the power to align cosmic energies and reveal secrets about your personality. Obviously, none of that is really in my field of expertise. I may not know much about the “right” sleeping posture, but I do know what happens when you sleep with the wrong posture. Dozing off at your desk with your head slumped forward or on the couch with your neck pressed awkwardly against the side can wreak havoc on the body. On the other hand, adopting an ergonomically “right” sleeping posture will help you sleep better so you can start your day refreshed and more pain-free.

Everyone is familiar with the consequences of falling asleep in the wrong position – a stiff neck, sore back, headache, painful shoulders and hips, and even numbness in your hands. Why does this happen? It’s a matter of body alignment and weight distribution. Many people sleep in positions (for example, sleeping in the fetal position or using too many pillows under your head) that force their spine out of its natural S-curve shape, which is why they wake with back pain. Secondly, the body’s weight must always be supported by something, and in the case of sleeping, it is often the joints that have to adopt this job. The shoulders, hips, neck, and even wrists must bear more weight for longer periods of time than they are used to, which is why many individuals wake with painful joints. Nerves can easily be compressed during this time, which is why we sometimes wake with numb, tingling hands.

We’ve all fallen asleep in a less-than-desirable position before, and not always by choice (maybe you were on a road trip or had to take a late flight), but under normal circumstances, we have a choice over how and where we fall asleep. And because not sleeping is not really an option, we must take steps to make sure our time spent sleeping is as restful and rejuvenating as our body needs it to be. There are three primary sleeping postures – back, side, and stomach – and with a few well-placed pillows, each can be made ergonomically compatible with your body’s natural alignment.

The best way to sleep is on your back; it most closely mimics the good posture the body desires when standing. If you suffer from low back pain, place a small pillow or rolled up towel under the small of your back and another under your knees. Sleeping on your side is second best, but be sure to place a pillow lengthwise between your knees; without this, most people will pull one knee closer to their chest, which creates a postural imbalance and can aggravate back and hip pain. Lastly, if you sleep on your stomach, place a pillow under your hips; this will help to alleviate the extra strain placed on your back from sleeping in this position. Pillows can also be placed under your chest or shins to give you a relaxing bend in your knees. In addition, regularly rotate your mattress to keep it from becoming saggy and unsupportive, and use a pillow that allows your neck to maintain a neutral position – meaning your head is not propped up nor sagging down.

For those times you do suffer the consequences of sleeping in the wrong position, ease into your day’s activity with gentle stretching and motion exercises (such as neck circles, arm swings, etc.). Your physical therapist can advise you with specifics in these areas. And when you next go to bed, choose an ergonomically “right” sleeping posture. Your body will thank you in the morning.

Don’t let aches and pains hold you back. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Pain Assessment!

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