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How to Sleep Better with Back Pain

Back pain can be debilitating and interfere with nearly all aspects of daily life, including sleep. Sleep deprivation may impair healing, affect mood in a way that heightens pain sensitivity, or disrupt chemicals in the brain that are involved in how we experience pain. Quality sleep can help prevent or reduce back pain, and knowing what to do to help improve sleep when you have back problems can help cope with pain, recovery and healing.

While sleeping, we cycle through two types of sleep. It’s during the deepest phase of sleep that we don’t move major muscles (such as arms and legs). It’s the only time during the day they get complete rest. That rest is important. An extra hour of sleep each day can help chronic pain considerably.

Sleep Positions

Posture is important whether sitting and standing, or lying down. A sleeping position that involves poor posture, twisting or otherwise putting pressure on the lumbar spine can cause pain and stiffness. This pain is often worse in the morning but may persist throughout the day. It’s important to find a supportive sleeping position. Regardless of the sleep position, make sure your spine is well-aligned. If needed, use extra pillows for body support.

The Best Sleeping Positions for Back Pain

  • Side Sleepers: sleeping on your side with a partial bend in the knees. Keeping the knees bent helps balance the body and reduces pressure on the lumbar spine. Many people find it helpful to put a small pillow between their knees to make this position more comfortable. Supporting the upward facing arm on a pillow can take pressure off the mid-back as well.
  • Back sleepers can put a pillow under their knees, legs, and/or lower back to support the natural curve of the spine and minimize lumbar pressure.
  • Stomach sleepers should opt for only a thin pillow under their head and place a more supportive pillow under their hips and abdomen. This works to prevent the lower back from sinking into a U-shape that pulls the spine out of alignment.

Sleeping Better While Coping with Back Pain

After several nights of bad sleep, it can leave a person feeling exhausted, both mentally and physically. While there’s no guaranteed way to get better sleep, these tips might help:

  • Relaxation methods: Finding techniques to wind down and decrease focus on pain. Consider massage, warm bath, hot tub, or relaxation sound tracks/apps.
  • Reduce potential sleep disruptions: Try to eliminate excess noise and light from your bedroom or block them out with a sleep mask or earplugs. Set your bedroom to a comfortable temperature.
  • Pain relievers: Over the counter options that would last 8 hours or more include Aleve (naproxen), and Tylenol Muscle Aches and Pain (extended release- long acting form). Lidocaine patches can work well with mid-back pain, also available over the counter. Be sure to talk to your doctor about good options for you.
  • Hot Packs/Cold Packs: Choose the one that helps you. You can also alternate heat/cold.
  • Massage: Massage can help with musculoskeletal pain. If massage is not an option for you, you can try using a tennis ball or foam roller on pressure points to provide relief.
  • Be aware of effects of alcohol and caffeine: Though alcohol may help you doze off, it can decrease the quality of your sleep and cause you to wake frequently or awaken feeling not well rested. As a stimulant, caffeine can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Mattress: Find a mattress that is comfortable for you. The most appropriate firmness can vary based on a person’s weight, body shape, sleeping position, and individual comfort preferences. For some, softer mattresses can help decrease pain while maintaining support.