Keam, who has since been diagnosed with a condition that causes compressed nerves in his neck, said his symptoms were likely exacerbated by the sleeping position he had chosen: as far back as he can remember, he has asleep on your stomach – “a bit like a frog” – with your head turned to the side.
Following the advice of his doctor, Keam said he was trying to join the legions of back and side sleepers, although fighting the ‘automatic impulse’ to roll over on his stomach was not easy . “The pain is definitely better,” he said. “I didn’t wake up because of the pain, but because I feel like I’ve been in the same position for a little too long and my body is starting to get uncomfortable.”
Although the position you fall asleep in is only one piece of the sleep hygiene puzzle, experts say it can be key. As in Keam’s case, the wrong sleeping position could exacerbate an underlying medical condition, while the right one could lessen symptoms and increase comfort.
Here are the pros and cons of different sleeping positions and how to choose the best one for you. We also have expert advice on the right pillows for back, side and stomach sleepers, and tips for learning how to stay in a new position.
For generally healthy people, sleeping on your back or in a supine position can help with spinal alignment, experts said. It can also help prevent or relieve back and neck pain because it provides more support.
It’s important, however, to make sure you have a quality mattress and an appropriate pillow, said Timothy Morgenthaler, co-director of the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Sleep Medicine. Many people who sleep on their backs can develop neck pain from using a pillow that’s too thick, he said.
“If you’re on your back and have a pillow 10 centimeters thick, it tends to flex your neck forward, which can put excessive pressure on parts of the cervical spine, discs, and muscle,” he said. “If you’re someone who really likes to sleep on your back, you might want to experiment with a narrower pillow rather than one of the big super soft pillows.”
Rachel Salas, a sleep neurologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness, also recommended using a second pillow or a rolled-up towel under your knees for support, which can relieve some pressure on your lower back.
But lying down isn’t for everyone, like people with obstructive sleep apnea or snoring. “Sleeping on your back can obviously make snoring and apnea worse, just because of how gravity works against you when you’re on your back,” Salas said.
Snoring, which is often associated with sleep apnea, usually occurs when a person’s airways are obstructed, said Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor in the division of sleep medicine at the University’s medical school. from Stanford. “The biggest thing about snoring is the tongue, and so the tongue will slip back when you sleep on your back.”
Although positional therapy, which uses various techniques to help people stop sleeping on their backs, is a milder treatment option for sleep apnea, Pelayo said, it may not be enough in moderate cases. or serious.
Pregnant women should also avoid sleeping on their backs, especially in the last trimester, Morgenthaler said. At this point, the uterus is large enough to press on the inferior vena cava, which is one of the main blood vessels that returns blood flow to the heart. Sleep apnea and trouble breathing may also be more common in pregnant women and are other reasons to avoid sleeping on your back.
“For the most part, sleeping on your side seems to be the most natural way to sleep for a lot of people.,“said Pelayo.
Sleeping on your side is often the recommended position for people who can’t sleep on their back due to an underlying health condition or pregnancy, experts said. And depending on which side you sleep on, it could help ease symptoms of pain, heartburn, and reflux, as well as potentially increase comfort for people with heart failure.
If you have shoulder or hip pain, avoid sleeping on the side that bothers you, experts say. For chronic back or neck pain, Pelayo said, sleeping on your side could be beneficial, as it can relieve pressure on painful areas.
Sleeping on your left side and with your upper body slightly elevated is the ideal position for people with heartburn or reflux, Salas said. “It’s all about where your organs are.” (Some research suggested that sleeping on the right side may exacerbate these symptoms.)
In this position, the majority of the stomach is below the esophagus, said Raj Dasgupta, a lung and sleep specialist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “You want gravity to be your friend in most cases,” he said.
Sleeping on the left side may also be better for pregnant women, Dasgupta said, because it can reduce pressure on the critical blood vessel that supplies the heart.
Sleeping on the right side, however, might be more comfortable for people with enlarged hearts, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Morgenthaler said the loft of the pillow (its height/thickness) is an important factor in ensuring comfortable side sleeping. If you sleep on your side without a pillow or use one that’s too thin, it could lead to your head and neck flexing on one side and extending on the other, he said. “You want a pillow that’s thick enough to get your neck in a more neutral position, and it turns out that on average it’s about seven to ten centimeters.”
A pillow between the knees could also help relieve discomfort or osteoarthritis, Dasgupta said, which can be exacerbated by sleeping with your legs bent.
People who snore or have sleep apnea may find it easier to sleep on their stomachs because it can help keep the airways more open, Morgenthaler wrote in an email. But the downside of the lying position is that it tends to “create a lot of pressure on various muscles and joints,” he said, because stomach sleepers typically have their heads turned a bit. side and arms in unusual positions or stuck under their torso.
Dasgupta agreed, “You can imagine your neck is on your side, gravity is putting pressure on your spine, so I’m really not a big fan of sleeping on your stomach.”
Given the potential increased strain on the body in this position, Morgenthaler said, stomach sleepers may want to avoid using “very thick” pillows, so as not to put additional pressure on the cervical spine, shoulders or lower back.
Still, experts have pointed out that sleeping positions are individual and you should choose what works for you. “What you want is comfort, and that comfort will help you sleep more soundly,” Pelayo said.
If, however, you realize that your sleeping position is not ideal, remember that it may take some time for you to get used to a different way of sleeping. And, Pelayo noted, it’s important to remember that you move naturally while you sleep. “Even if you wake up in the same position when you started, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to travel all night to change positions,” he said.
Strategically placed pillows and devices meant to help you stay in a certain position can be helpful, experts said. There are belts and vests designed to make sleeping on your back uncomfortable – a more modern take on the method of sewing a tennis ball into the back of a t-shirt – and wearable technology that can detect if you are on your back and emit vibrations prompting you to turn on your side.
Keam, the delegate from Virginia, said he leaned heavily on pillows to keep him from rolling onto his stomach, but was not yet used to the new position. “Now that I think so much about my sleeping habits and sleeping position, I feel like I can’t sleep as comfortably because it’s not natural anymore.”
Learning to sleep in a new position might initially “disturb your sleep a bit,” Morgenthaler acknowledged. “But if there’s a good reason to change position, you can adapt as long as you don’t have a skeletal reason that prevents you from doing so.”
Making even minor changes to the way you sleep can have an effect, Dasgupta added. “Getting good sleep sounds so easy and simple, but it’s actually a lot harder than you think,” he said. “My view is that every little thing matters.”