These Are the Best Sleeping Positions to Avoid Waking Up With Aches and Pains—or Worse, an Injury

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Sleep is, first and foremost, a healing state, a time when your entire system is repairing and replenishing itself for optimal health and functioning.

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It’s also a time when you’re completely comfortable, relaxed, and tuned out from the world around you. But even still, it is possible to wake up the next day with aches and pains—even an injury—due to all the moving around you’re doing, or from the particular position you happen to sleep in.

Lauri Leadley, clinical sleep educator and the president of Valley Sleep Center, an independent sleep diagnostics center based in Arizona, warns that “yes, you can injure yourself while sleeping, [and it] can range from something minor, like a sore shoulder, to something major, like spinal compression.”

Leadley says the most common injuries from sleep can be a stiff neck, sore shoulders, or back pain. Less common but more serious ones might include a bulging disc or displaced rib, which she attributes to different kinds of sleeping positions.

What sleeping positions can cause injury?

While it probably seems like you have no control over getting hurt while you’re sound asleep (and there certainly is some truth to that), there are some preventive and corrective measures you can try to take if you find yourself waking up with pain. These might include training yourself to avoid certain sleeping positions or certain pillows, for instance. Leadley lists off some of the worst offenders:

“Sleeping with your arm above your head or on your shoulder for an extended period of time can lead to painful injuries. Sleeping with a pillow that allows your neck to rest at odd angles, or sleeping with your legs elevated can also lead to uncomfortable situations,” she says. “Even sleeping while sitting in an upright position can lead to head and neck injuries.”

And bad news: another problem position tends to be sleeping on your stomach, which Leadley says should be avoided, if possible. “Sleeping on your stomach can place strain on your back and neck, and can cause more tossing, turning, and restlessness during the night,” she says. “The fetal position is also not recommended, as the extreme curvature of the spine can cause discomfort in the neck and back, and being tightly curled can also restrict breathing.”

What’s the best sleeping position to avoid pain?

Leadley explains that it’s good to try to sleep—or at least to fall asleep—while lying on your back. “Sleep in a straight position with your arms down by your sides, and on your back, if you can,” she says. “You’re less likely to pull a muscle or displace a rib (a more extreme scenario) if you aren’t stretched out. Sleeping on your back also helps alleviate neck, shoulder, and back pain.”

Another good position to sleep in is on your side—but again, not in a way that’s super tightly curled in the fetal position. “This enables the spine to stay in a neutral position, and helps with neck, shoulder, and back pain,” Leadley adds.

While we can’t always micromanage what our bodies do while we dream, we can take some steps to try to train ourselves to fall asleep in more optimal positions. For example, “if you sleep with your arms above your head, try retraining your body by tucking in a sheet around your arms when they’re down by your side,” Leadley suggests. “Movement will be limited while you sleep, lending to a lower risk of injury. Use pillows as a support system to elevate your knees or neck to relieve pressure, and find a firm mattress that supports your body.”

Story by Maggie Seaver


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