Back in Balance Family Chiropractic

Sleep Position and Your Spine

A proper pillow height while side sleeping can ease stress on the spine

By: Adam Renelt, DC

Updated 2/26/24

A common complaint that our chiropractors hear from patients is that they think that their mattress or pillow is causing headaches, back pain or neck pain. They may think this because they wake up with pain in the morning. Before rushing out and buying a new mattress (or pillow) I normally recommend they check what position (posture) they are sleeping in. The position that your sleep in may have a strong influence on your spine. If someone sleeps in a poor position, even the newest, greatest mattress may not fix their all their problems.  Since people spend roughly 30% of their day in bed, posture and positioning is important.  Like posture when using a computer, poor sleep posture could result in headaches, neck pain, back pain and tingling or numbness into the arms or legs.  Here is a breakdown of each of the three most common positions.

The Three Main Sleeping Positions

Stomach sleeper: 

This is the worst position for the spine.  In order to breathe people must turn their head at an awkward angle. Imagine if you spent 8 hours during the day with your head turned to the side and didn’t look straight ahead!  This position results in a lot of stress on the cervical (neck) and thoracic (upper back) vertebra and nerves. Stomach sleepers often have headaches, neck pain, upper back pain and/or numbness in their hands. These problems may not fully resolve unless a new sleep position is learned.

Side sleeper: 

Side sleeping can be a good or bad thing…depending on your version of side sleeping.  First, things that could make it a bad position:

  1. Many people tend to curl into a fetal position with their chin tucked to their chest. Try to keep your head above your shoulders and in a more neutral position to ease pressure on your neck and upper back. Also, choose a pillow height that keeps your head neutral between your shoulders and not tilted up or down.
  2. Sleeping with your knees separated (one knee higher than the other) may result in torque being placed on the lower back or pelvis.  This may result in lower back pain or even sciatica.  Put a pillow between your legs to help keep the knees together and decrease the stress on your lower back.
  3. Many side sleepers tend to get their hands and wrists above their head when sleeping (tucked under a pillow for example). This may result in numbness in your hands and forearms.  Hug a pillow to keep your arms below your head when sleeping (similar to child with a stuffed animal).
Too high of a pillow causes the neck position to stress the spine.
A pillow that is too high may cause neck and upper back stress.
A proper pillow height while side sleeping can ease stress on the spine
Using a shorter pillow helps to keep the neck in a more neutral position. This may ease stress on the spine.

Back Sleeper: 

This is probably the best overall position for your spine when sleeping. Make sure to keep your head in a more neutral position by finding a pillow that is a good height to keep your head and neck in a neutral position.  A back sleeper may find that a shorter pillow works better for them as compared to a side sleeper. Back sleepers should also take care to try to keep their head straight and not tilted or turned to the right or to the left.

How to Change to your Sleep Position

Sleep position can be difficult to change so gradually work on coaching your body to get used to changing how you sleep.  It may take several months of working on a new posture to get your body trained to a different sleep posture. If you have specific questions about your symptoms, please contact our office in Sioux Falls for a chiropractic consultation.   One of our chiropractors would be happy to discuss your case as well as any postural concerns you may have. They may offer specific advice on your sleeping posture and help you devise a plan to improve your positioning.

Adam Renelt, DC is the founder of Back in Balance Chiropractic. Dr. Adam grew up on a farm in South Dakota and received a Bachelor’s degree from the University of South Dakota in 2004. In 2007 he graduated from Palmer College of Chiropractic with his Doctorate of Chiropractic degree and started his career in private practice. He lives in Sioux Falls with his wife and son.  In his free time he enjoys reading and being outdoors, mountain biking and hiking.

Share this: