Here we are yet again having gone through a completely manufactured sleep disruptor known as the end of Daylight Savings Time. Hopefully by today you have managed to ‘fall back’ and perhaps you enjoyed that ‘extra hour of sleep’ everyone tells us we get. I am not buying it because my body is not acting like it got more sleep – in fact I typically feel annoyed and sleepy for about a week each time the pull the proverbial time rug out from under us.
Thankfully most of us tend to adjust quickly to changes in our wake sleep cycle so even if you are like me and a bit of a zombie for a couple of days we will all snap out of it soon enough. While I am in this twilight state I started to think more about sleep positions. Many people ask me what is the best sleep position for their body and I typically tell them that practically any position can work if you have the proper support.
Side sleeping is the most common sleep position. Studies have shown that about 40% of us sleep this way with women being twice as likely as men to sleep on their sides. In the side sleeping position the sleeper may curl their arms and legs into what is called the fetal position. Next common would be those who sleep on their side with both arms and legs straight (often called the log position) and then there are those who side sleep with legs straight but arms reaching outward – called the ‘yearner’ position. Side sleepers (fetal, log and yearner) would do well to use a pillow under their head that is about the thickness of the space between their neck and shoulder to reduce neck and shoulder issues. They might also need a pillow or bolster between their knees for hip comfort. The main problem with side sleeping positions is that without proper support we tend to place our arm under our head. This can interfere with nerve conduction to the lower shoulder and cause the arm to go numb. We also may sag the upper shoulder downward in a way that overstretches the muscles of the shoulder blade and leads to muscle spasms. For the hips, side sleeping may increase pressure on the bottom hip and cause the upper hip and pelvis to sag forward causing outer hip pain. We tend to favor one side more than another and when injured we often are not able to rest on our favorite side. Many of these problems will resolve with proper neck, shoulder and hip support.
Back sleepers may sleep with their arms and legs close to the body (the soldier) or arms bent with hands near the head or with both arms and legs spread away from the body, called the ‘starfish’ and sometimes called ‘the person who is hogging the bed’. Sleeping on the back is sometimes referred to as the best sleep position because it puts less stress on the shoulders and hips and may help keep the body posture more aligned. Yet, for those with sleep apnea or other sinus related issues, sleeping on the back can cause the sleeper to snore. Those who sleep on their back need to have support for the back of the neck and only a slight amount of pillow behind their head to reduce neck stress. Back sleepers also do well with a pillow behind their knees to reduce low back stress.
Those who sleep on their stomach are called ‘freefallers’. The arms are typically placed near the head. This stomach sleeping position is the only sleeping position that seems to have no pillow solution. Sleeping on the stomach can put excessive stress on the neck because the head must be turned. It can also create lower back tension because it causes extension of the lower back. If you are a stomach sleeper and have issues with your neck or back you may want to learn to sleep in a different position. Of course that is easier said than done. We don’t like to sleep in any position other than ‘our’ position.
Changing Your Sleep Position
Sleep positions are a habit and like any other habit they are hard to change. Sometimes we need to make a change in order to reduce discomfort from our sleeping position. We might start out with good intentions of sleeping in some other way than what is typical for us but most will find themselves in their favorite position by the morning. I have joked with those who need to change from stomach sleeping that they should sew a tennis ball to the front of their pajamas to prevent themselves from rolling onto their stomachs in the night. The best way to change your sleep position is to give yourself all the comfortable support you need in an alternate position. Every time you find yourself back in the old sleep position, put yourself back into your new sleep posture. It will take time but if you persist you can create a new habit.
Getting the Best Sleep Support
I have found a wonderful pillow that really helps my neck and shoulder stay comfortable whether I sleep on my side or on my back. The Therapeutica pillow is built differently than any other pillow I have come across. The sides of this pillow are structured in a way that gives support for those who sleep on their side. In the center of the pillow is a depression that cradles your head when you roll onto your back. At this center position is a ramp-like piece of foam that supports the curve of you neck. The pillow is not one size fits all and you measure yourself to get the right fit. Prior to using this pillow I had all sorts of trouble with my neck and would often awake with tingling or numb hands due to nerve compression in my neck and shoulder as I slept. Since I have been using the Therapeutica pillow for the last 20 years I have not experienced any of those symptoms. I highly recommend this pillow if you have any neck or shoulder issues. I like it so much that I take it with me when I travel – they even have a special version for travel. B001DLSAKM
You may do fine with a pillow behind your knees but if you would like a firmer support you would do well to use a bolster. Bolsters come in many shapes and sizes. For sleeping, most people find a small bolster is enough.
To give comfort to hips in side sleeping a regular pillow can be used but many prefer a body pillow that will fit not just between the knees but also give support to the upper arm. A body pillow can help convert a stomach sleeper into a side sleeper because it will mimic the feeling of the bed against the front of the body. It can also help because it will stop you from easily rolling over onto your stomach. Some people prefer a knee wedge which is a specially made pillow that goes between the knees.
However you do it, be sure to rest well and get that vital 7 to 10 hours of sleep you need. Your health depends on it.