By now it’s common knowledge that sleep is essential for the body to recover from the daily stresses we put it through. Whether you’re a 9-5’er or a power lifter, those 6-8 hours of shuteye mean serious recharging for your batteries. A lack of sleep on the other hand has been shown to have some pretty serious side effects, including increased inflammation, pain, depression, and even heart disease. Although modern lifestyle fairy tales romanticize the ability to power through low amounts of sleep, science says that this will catch up to you, if not now, soon. A good rule to stick to is about seven hours of sleep for the average human, again, according to the science of sleep. Consider that academics suggest that the ‘best sleeping position’. Dr. Prathap r. Addageethala, Doctor of Chiropractic, Director, Atlas Chiropractic and Wellness, shares tips on the right way to sleep.
In general, there are three major categories of positions that people sleep in – on their back (face up), on their side (either right or left), and on their stomach (face down). Of course, variety can be introduced in the sleep position by moving the arms and legs forward and backwards, but for the sake of keeping it simple, we’re focusing on these three main categories.
- Sleeping prone / on your stomach / face down
By far the worst of the 3 options, this particular position can really put a kink in your neck upon waking. Since there is no ventilation with the face pressed into the pillow, we are forced to spend time with our heads turned in one direction or another. This can cause strain on the muscles, joints, and ligaments of the head and neck, and can further create issues of stress on the spine. People who suffer from neck pain and headaches may find that their symptoms are either caused or aggravated by sleeping in this position. People who suffer back pain, and are unable to sleep in other positions, may choose to prop up their abdomen with a pillow or bolster while in this position.
- Sleeping supine / on your back / face up
When we stand, the effect of gravity pulls us in a downward manner, putting pressure on the bones of our spine and the spinal discs. This is part of the reason that sleeping is so restful – because that force of gravity or loading of the spine – goes away. When we lay on our back, we allow the pressure on the discs to ease up, which allows for better nutrient exchange within the disc. This reduced pressure also takes strain off of our joints, all the way up and down our back. The force of gravity is evenly distributed in this state, all the way throughout the spine, in a manner that is conducive to rest and recovery. Sleeping on your back has the lowest amount of pressure on your spine, out of all positions you may find yourself in on a day to day basis. This is my recommendation of the three options, for this reason alone. People who suffer back pain may be advised to use a pillow under the knees to alleviate pressure from the low back.
- Sleeping on your side
This is the recommended position from many experts in the sleep and orthopedic communities. The major difference between laying on one side or the other is the weight of the internal organs. Specifically, sleeping on your left side means the weight of the liver presses against the stomach and lungs. Sleeping on your right side has been linked to an increased level of acidity and gastritis, although no formal study has proven this connection.
If you look at the spine from behind, it should be straight. Several issues can be present which may prevent this, but our ‘default setting’ is for the spine to be straight. From the side however, the spine has 3 natural curves, in the neck (cervical), the mid back (thoracic), and the low back (lumbar). Sleeping on your side allows the natural curvatures of your spine (looking from the side) to relax and space out, while allowing the position of your spine (looking from behind) to be straight.
In this position however, the firmness of your bed may play a role. A long-held belief is that the firmer your bed, the better it is for your back. While this might hold true for acute back pain, over a longer period of time it can actually create issues. The same is accurate for a bed that is too soft. In both of these situations, that spine loses its straightness, and over longer periods of time, can both create and exacerbate pain symptoms. People suffering from pain would be advised to use a pillow, blanket, or special orthopedic support between the knees to help keep good alignment of the spine and pelvis. (Images from 3 below)
Atlas Chiropractic and Wellness by Dr. Prathap r. Addageethala is at Kannambilles #820, 10th A Main, 1st Floor, Near Metro Station, Indiranagar, Bengaluru.
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Desouzart, Gustavo et al. Effects of Sleeping Position on Back Pain in Physically Active Seniors: A Controlled Pilot Study. Work. 2016;53(2):235–240.
Haex B. Back and Bed: Ergonomic Aspects of Sleeping. Boca Raton: CRC Press; 2005.