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Is Back Pain Keeping You From Getting To Sleep Or Staying Asleep?

Back Pain from Sleeping 1

Is back pain keeping you from getting to sleep or staying asleep?

Let’s discuss some simple position and mattress changes that have helped my patients sleep more soundly.  

We’ll discuss people having issues with back pain while you sleep- both for side sleepers and back sleepers. One of the things to consider for side sleeping is just keeping you in position. Many people who sleep on their sides tend to unknowingly move from side to side or onto their stomach and in and out of those positions. And then they end up in an arrangement that’s not ideal.

One of my patients turned me on to the newer idea of a side sleeping backpack. What it does is it keeps you in the side-lying position without being too uncomfortable. I’ve had several patients say that they tried it, and they were able to adapt to the pack quickly, and it kept them on their side. 

Having proper support between your knees will help with both comfort and proper spinal alignment.

It’s best to have a pillow that keeps your legs hip-distance apart, so they’re not falling towards each other. One thing to be conscious of is to keep your top from falling across or over, which puts unwanted strain and a twisting force on your back. Make sure that both thighs are parallel when lying on your side. The pillow needs to be large enough to accommodate your frame adequately. 

If you sleep with your thighs curled up towards your chest, try to slowly back off the fetal sleep position. A 45-degree angle for your thighs in relation to your trunk is better, and your head should be neutral and supported. You want to ensure that your body isn’t cranked toward one side or the other side. It may help to have somebody take a look at you from the side and maybe even take a picture to see how your spine, head, and neck are aligned. 


If you suffer from low back pain while sleeping on your side, try a supportive towel roll above the hips.  

Gravity puts force through the lower vertebrae of your spine, so often- especially for lean individuals- that force of gravity pushes those vertebrae down towards the floor. Sometimes trialing a very small towel roll to support that part of your spine can help reduce or even eliminate back pain in the low back. 

Towel Wedge

Moving on to back sleeping… 

If you haven’t already, one of the easiest things to try is putting some support under the knees. It may take a bit more support than you think. It may not be enough if you’re using only a thin pillow or folded blanket under your knees. This is because when the knees are bent, you’re putting your hamstrings on slack, taking some stress off the low back. A circular yoga bolster role is excellent for support- they work well for slackening the hamstrings and taking pressure off the low back. 

Back Sleeper wedge

Not so many people claim to be stomach sleepers, but there are things that you can do to help with any back pain in this position, too.

Stomach sleeping has some advantages, but if your back pain is significant enough to distract you or consider changes and options, it’s obviously bothering you a lot. If you’ve been sleeping this way your whole life, it can be challenging to change, but it is possible. Do it slowly and methodically, a little bit at a time.

One of the best ways to make this transition is to again use props on both sides of your body. The side sleeper backpack may be an option with the addition of pillows snug to the front of your body. This way, you’re not as likely to immediately move onto your stomach unconsciously. I’ve seen several patients make this transition, and transitioning either to a side-lying or back sleeping position helped their back pain. 

Preventing turning for stomach sleepers

An option to consider if you’ve tried all these things is to inspect your bed.  

How old is your mattress? Innerspring mattresses typically last for ten, maybe 15 years, depending on the manufacturer and the quality of the construction. Take a look at the recommendations on your mattress model to figure out exactly how long the mattress is supposed to last.  

Ensure that you do not see any visible dips, particularly if you are lined out. It’s not always visible, but if you lie down on it, you’ll be able to feel a difference in the contour. If there’s any spring sticking out, or if you’re feeling curves that are either visible or not visible, it may be time to consider getting a new mattress to better support you.

A quality and supportive mattress is a worthwhile investment. Having a medium to firm mattresses for most people with back pain is more beneficial than memory foam pillow tops, which can lose the contour to support the natural curvature of your spine.  

Consider doing gentle stretches before bed.


Stretch your spine in both directions. The camel / cat exercise is excellent. Stretch your hips. You can do this while you’re seated. There are many different ways, but stretching out your hip muscles will help to relax the muscles around your back and reduce pain. 

Along these same lines, look into progressive muscle relaxation meditation. It’s a way of helping your body sequentially release stress and tension in muscles. I find the technique to be effective for people with low back pain.  

If you’ve been dealing with back pain while you sleep for a while now, you may wonder whether you should look into getting an x-ray or an MRI. 

It may be something to consider. Start with talking to your health care provider first. If you have a primary care provider, make time to see them. Let your provider know what’s going on. Often, they will advise you to go to physical therapy first. It may be different if you have any red flags, like if you’re having ongoing numbness, tingling bladder, bowel changes, or diffuse, intense, gnawing pain in your back. These are just a few examples of signs that something more serious may be going on and are worth investigating immediately. Again, always talk to your health care provider first.  

I often hear from my patients that sleeping in their recliner is the only comfortable way to rest. 

If this is the case for you, I recommend getting seen by a health care provider quickly and checking this issue out. It might be a sign of something more serious like spinal stenosis. There are other reasons that this kind of position may seem to be the only one that’s comfortable and should be treatable with proper treatment.  

Suppose you’ve tried all these things and still not feeling better. In that case, most states -Michigan included- allow patients direct access to a physical therapist. A physical therapist can screen you and determine if you do need to go right to your physician. If you have easy access to your physician or another primary care provider, start there.  

Often physical therapy can really help improve people’s quality of sleep. As physical therapy improves your flexibility and strength, the body begins to balance out more, and sleep improves as a result.  

Did these tips help bring you even 10% relief? If so, you would greatly benefit from a FREE, 1-on-1 assessment of your individual body so you can avoid wrecking your lower back.

At Healthy Consumer Physical Therapy, our therapists near you encourage patients to listen to their bodies. Pain is designed to alert you when something is wrong before it becomes a chronic problem, and we advocate seeking help early on. We can discuss concerns, set goals, develop an individual, comprehensive plan, and work on executing for long-term improvement. In addition, patients are given instruction on ways to incorporate additional exercises and stretches at home to improve strength, stability, and range of motion.

Chris S

Dr. Chris Sovey

Healthy Consumer PT

"We Help Adults 40+ Living With Pain, Stiffness, Or Loose Joints Get Healthy, Age Stronger, And Get Back To The Activities They Love, Even If Past Treatments Have Failed"


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