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How to Sleep Better with Any Type of Back Pain

An estimated 80% of adults have experienced back pain at some point in their lives. If you fall into this category, then you know how much back pain can disrupt your sleep.

“When you have back pain, it can be difficult to find a comfortable position to fall asleep in,” says Alex Tauberg, chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist at Pittsburgh Chiropractor. Whether you experience occasional back strain or sciatica or are living with spinal arthritis or scoliosis, here are a few tips for getting better sleep with various types of back pain.

Back pain and sleep

It’s probably no surprise that pain negatively impacts your sleep. In fact, a 2011 review published in the Clinical Journal of Pain concluded that chronic back pain can increase the time it takes to fall asleep, reduce sleep duration and sleep quality, cause more sleep disturbances, and lead to higher levels of sleep dissatisfaction and distress. All that leads up to a lot of lost Z’s.

According to its 2015 Sleep in America poll, the National Sleep Foundation found that people with pain averaged 42 fewer minutes of sleep per week than their bodies ideally needed. This sleep deficit not only makes you feel lousy but takes away important healing time your body gets when you sleep to repair strained muscles or decrease inflammation.

Causes of back pain

There are lots of reasons why you can end up with back pain. Occasional back pain may come from a back sprain or strain, PMS, or even the flu. A simple sneeze can throw your back out of whack! Injuries to the back from playing sports, falling, or a car accident can all lead to back pain too.

When discs in the spine herniate, rupture, or just degenerate due to aging pain can ensue. Other issues including sciatica, scoliosis, and osteoporosis can also bring about back pain. Some back pain may not even originate in the back itself—conditions like kidney stones and endometriosis can cause back pain as well.

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Related: The best daily habits to prevent back pain while you sleep

Relieving back pain for better sleep

If you suffer from occasional or chronic back pain, there are steps that you can take to try to alleviate some of your symptoms while you sleep.

Have a particular pain in the back? Try these strategies for better sleep.

Strains and sprains

Back strains and sprains are the most common reason for back pain and often occur from twisting or lifting something too heavy or with improper form (remember: bend at the knees!) “For someone with a sprain and strain, sleeping on their side is likely to be a more comfortable position,” suggests Tauberg. “When side sleeping with a bad back, using a pillow in between the legs and arms is going to allow the back to relax more.”

Bulging or ruptured disks

The back contains 23 intervertebral discs that provide important cushioning and support between the vertebrae. If these discs herniate or rupture, the result is back pain. According to the TriState Pain Institute, sleeping on one’s back is the best position if you have a herniated disc since it helps your spine maintain its natural curvature. A pillow under your knees and your lower back may provide additional comfort for intense back disc pain.

Sciatica

The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back to the buttocks and leg. If this nerve gets pinched due to compression, inflammation, or injury, it can lead to the condition called sciatica, which can show up as pain, numbness, or weakness in the lower back and leg. “For people with true radicular pain (sciatica) that sleep on their back, I recommend they put a pillow under their knees,” Tauberg says. “In that position, some of the tension is taken off of the nerve.”

Just keep this caution from Tauberg in mind if you’re a back sleeper with sciatica: “If someone with radicular pain sleeps in the face-up position without a pillow under their knees, they may aggravate the injury as the nerve will be in a taut position most of the night.”

Arthritis

Spinal arthritis is an inflammation of the joints in the spine and can be due to general aging, autoimmune disorders, or infection. Pain and stiffness are the most common symptoms and often occur anywhere in the spine from the neck to the lower back.

According to Spine Universe, a firm mattress and supportive pillows are key to better sleep with arthritis. The site also recommends choosing a sleep position based on your pain location. If the pain is more in your neck, try a flat pillow and sleep on your back so your spine is in a neutral position. If the pain is in your lower back, side sleeping with your hips bent at a 90-degree angle may bring more relief.

Scoliosis

Scoliosis is an irregularity in the spine in which the spine curves to the left or right, creating a C- or S-shape. While mild cases may not cause much discomfort, more severe spine irregularities may make it difficult to sleep.

According to Treating Scoliosis, finding your best sleep position depends on knowing the particular curve of your spine. If you have a curve in your upper back, called a thoracic curve, you may benefit from back sleeping with a pillow under your shoulder blades to alleviate pressure. A lumbar curve, or curve in the lower back, may require more experimentation to find the best sleep position. Utilizing support pillows or even an adjustable bed can help those with scoliosis find relief.

Best sleep positions for lower back pack pain

It’s important to pay attention to your sleep position if you have back pain. Here are the best and worst sleep positions for back pain:

Back sleeper

“In an ideal world the best position is probably lying on your back, says Tauberg, who recommends back sleepers put a pillow under their legs to provide some low back pain relief. “This allows the low back to be slightly more relaxed and in less of an extended position,” he explains.

Side sleeper

Prefer to sleep on your side? “When someone sleeps on their side, I often recommend that they put a pillow between their knees and under their arm,” suggests Tauberg. “This can help them get into a position where there is less twisting of their body.” Tauberg says that side sleepers with back pain are often able to find more comfort and wake up with less pain in this position than when they don’t use the pillows.

Stomach sleeper

Above all, avoid sleeping on your stomach, which counteracts the natural curvature of your spine, putting strain on the muscles, ligaments, and vertebrae in your back.

Protecting your back while you sleep is key. Here’s everything you need to know about lumbar support for a better night’s sleep.