80% of adults in the UK will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives*. Though for many people the pain is only temporary, it can negatively affect their day-to-day life, including their sleep. And of course, sleeping badly can have a knock-on effect on everything else.
Not being able to sleep for any reason can be really frustrating, but if it’s back pain that’s stopping you from drifting off, you may be able to ease it at least a little bit. In fact, the cause of your back pain may even relate to the way you sleep.
For example, sleeping on your stomach is widely understood to be the worst sleeping position. This is because it puts pressure on the lower curve of your spine, and in order to breathe you have to twist your neck at an unnatural angle. Both of these things can cause or worsen back pain.
You can try to train yourself out of sleeping on your stomach by lying a line of pillows next to you, or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, you could even tape a tennis ball to the front of your pyjamas. However, if you really can’t get comfortable in any other position, you can ease some of the pressure on your lower back by placing a pillow below your pelvis and lower abdomen. Use one thin pillow to avoid putting further pressure on your neck. Opting for a firmer mattress when you prefer to sleep in this position is your safest bet of getting as close as possible to healthy spine alignment.
A better sleeping position, and by far the most common, is on your side with your legs stretched out. Placing a pillow between your knees will support your upper leg and stop you from rolling onto your stomach during the night. Two pillows or one thick pillow will support the curve of your neck. Cosy as it might be, try to avoid sleeping in the foetal position if you can, as this creates an unnatural curve in your spine. A softer or medium mattress is best for side sleepers, as it provides extra cushioning to the shoulders and hips which will promote healthy spine alignment overall.
Sleeping on your back is often considered the most healthy way to sleep, although there are ways to better support the natural curve of your spine even in this position, including placing a pillow under your knees. Go for one pillow under your head so that your head and neck are supported without forcing your head to bend forward too much. Again, a firmer mattress is advised for anyone who prefers to sleep in this position, as anything too soft can cause improper spine alignment.
If you try all of this and it doesn’t ease your back pain, and especially if it is particularly bad in the morning, the problem might be your mattress. With a latex, memory foam or pocket sprung mattress, you may even be able to ditch all the extra pillows. A foam or pocket sprung mattress of the correct firmness for your body type and preferred sleeping position will mold to the natural curve of your spine, ensuring that it is properly supported.
You can also help ease pain before you go to sleep by taking a hot bath or shower, using a hot or cold compression pack, or applying a topical anti-inflammatory painkiller, such as ibuprofen gel. And, of course, if your pain persists, it’s best to go and see your GP.