LAKE OCONEE — According to the National Sleep Research Project, the average human will spend one third of his life sleeping, which equates to about 20 to 25 years over a 75-year life span. Most of us know that good quality sleep is vitally important for our physical, mental and emotional well being, however, few of us ever really stop to consider how improper sleeping positions can affect our physical health.
One of the most common complaints we hear is from patients who wake up in the morning with a stiff back or neck after going to bed feeling “perfectly fine.” While there can be numerous causes for this stiffness, the trigger is usually related to sleep position. Here are the “dos and don’ts” I share with patients when it comes to how they should sleep.
First -- never, ever sleep on your stomach! Stomach sleeping is by far the worse position you can be in, as it causes increased stress to the neck and spine. Sleeping on your stomach will cause you to turn your head to one side in order to breathe. Keeping your head rotated in that position for an extended amount of time causes excessive stress and strain to the muscles, joints and ligaments in the neck. Imagine how your neck would feel if you sat in a chair with your head turned to one side for 30 minutes. Now multiply that by 12 and it’s no wonder you have a “stiff neck” first thing in the morning. The rotation and extension of the neck that occurs when sleeping on your stomach can also interfere with blood and oxygen flow to the brain.
Whether lying on your back or your side, make sure to maintain a neutral spinal position. This means keeping your spine is as straight a line as possible. If you’re sleeping on your side, make sure not to swing one leg over the other, which can cause increased stress on hip and pelvic joints. A good habit is to place a small pillow between your legs when sleeping on your side. This allows both legs to remain straight and avoids unwanted rotation of the hips or pelvis. If you sleep on your back, you might consider placing one or two pillows under the knees. The pillow under your knees should have enough height to keep your low back comfortably flat against the mattress.
Also, be sure to check your pillow height. It is best to use a pillow that is not too thin and flat, and not too big and fluffy. If you are a side-lying sleeper, then make sure the distance between your ear and the mattress is just enough to keep your head straight in line with the rest of your back. If you’re a back-lying sleeper, it is important to make sure your pillow allows for the natural ‘C’ curve of your neck. The best way to help accommodate this is with a good orthopedic pillow. Many good quality orthopedic pillows are specifically designed to maintain the natural position of your spine, whether you sleep on your side or your back.
One type of pillow we suggest to steer clear of is a down pillow. At first glance, the new down pillow might seem wonderful and like “sleeping on a cloud,” but over time it will begin to lose its firmness and no longer support the neck adequately. This will happen slowly and without you even noticing it, but one day you will wake up and start to wonder why your neck is stiff and achy. So unless you are willing to replace a down pillow with a new one every few months, then I would not recommend using this specific type of pillow.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to sleep position is that it is a habit. We are creatures of habit – when we do something repeatedly in a particular way, it can be hard to change it. Just like any other negative habit in your life, bad sleeping positions will indeed take a certain amount of awareness, energy and willingness to change them. It will take time and effort, but if you keep at it, the change will pay big dividends toward improving your overall health.
Dr. Justin Lance can be reached at Pathways to Healing, (706) 454-2040.