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The Benefits And Drawbacks To Your Preferred Sleep Position

The Benefits And Drawbacks To Your Preferred Sleep Position

You probably have one or two preferred sleep positions you use to get comfortable and maximize your chances of getting a restful night’s sleep. Obviously, that’s normal. Even animals do it. Unfortunately, for humans (of course) there has to be all this depressing scientific research on the sleep positions people tend to have and all sorts of unwanted effects they can cause on the neck, back, skin, limbs, or other body parts that get in the way.

I’m a stomach sleeper. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this is pretty much the absolute worst position to put your body through when it comes time to catch some Zs. However, in my personal situation, it’s actually super comfortable. I feel awesome, and I usually can’t seem to fall asleep quite the same when I’m on my back or on my side.

It’s said that sleeping on your stomach can screw up your neck (because it’s turned to the side all night) and can also cause back pain due to contorting the natural C curve of your spine. Women who are stomach sleepers also have to deal with their lungs and breasts and uterus getting smooshed, so that’s no fun at all. With that said, I should be a crippled mess of a person right now because of the way that I sleep every night, yet somehow, I’m not.

Spoiler alert: There is no ideal “one size fits all” position for sleep.

Obviously, we’ve all got arms, legs, a torso, a neck, and all that other stuff that comes with being physically human; however, we don’t all suffer from the same aches and pains or airway problems that can rob us of proper sleep and make us feel super groggy during the day. Therefore, it would be silly for someone to recommend that every single person should sleep in one preferred position for the rest of their lives.

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Dr. Steven Park says that you really shouldn’t have to change your preferred sleep position unless you’re experiencing pain or any other health problems because of it.

If you absolutely need to sleep on your back, surrounded by 57 pillows, with calming frog sounds playing in the background, while one leg is bent and the other leg is propped up on the other — and you feel GREAT in the morning — then why stop doing something that’s working so well for you?

Trying out different positions when you sleep is effective for relieving pain or finding a way to get a better quality of sleep, but if you don’t suffer from any muscle or joint pain during the day, and you’re happy with the way that you sleep, then there’s probably no need to change anything. Congratulations! You found your perfect position! Besides, it should feel natural.

So, what should you do if you’re a stomach sleeper like I am, knowing that’s still basically the worst position to sleep in? Well, it makes me feel good, so I’m sticking with it. However, if you experience neck pain, back pain, aching muscles, snoring, pins and needles, sleep deprivation, or anything else that may be unpleasantly related to how you sleep, then it may be time to try something new.

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The general consensus is that sleeping on your back or on your side is best because you’re less likely to suffer from neck and back pain.

The National Sleep Foundation says that sleeping on your back keeps your spine pretty neutral, and sleeping on your side elongates it. The fact that your spine isn’t curved in any unnatural way makes these two preferred positions the real winners.

If you’re a back or side sleeper, then good for you! You’re doing it right… although there’s always room for a little improvement.

If you sleep on your side, go for a thick pillow that fills up all that space between your shoulder and head — and try placing a pillow between your knees as well.

You need a nice thick and puffy pillow to make sure your head and neck are supported in a neutral position while lying on your side. Placing a pillow between the knees keeps the pelvis straight, preventing your legs from falling to either side and causing any awkward twists in the body.

Try a body pillow if you’re a side sleeper. They’re great if you need to hug something for better upper body stability, and they’re long enough that you can wrap your legs around them too.

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The one thing you actually need to avoid as a side sleeper is the fetal position. Bringing your knees and legs way up toward your chest forces a bigger curve in your spine, which can spell out pain for your poor back and neck by morning.

If you sleep on your back, go for a puffy pillow that’s not too thick so it doesn’t prop your head up too much — and place another pillow under your knees and calves.

While sleeping on your back, your head will need to be supported by a proper pillow that prevents it from falling too far side to side, but not so much that it lifts your head way up so that your neck is out of line with rest of your body.

It’s also a good idea to try placing a pillow directly underneath the knees so that it kind of props up the natural curves in your legs, creating support for them and keeping your spine in a flatter neutral position. Placing your arms over your head can force a bigger curve in your back, so try to keep them down by your side.

If you sleep on your stomach, go for an extra thin pillow and avoid using one that’s too thick or puffy.

In fact, if you sleep on your stomach, it might be best to use no pillow at all.

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When sleeping on your stomach, the natural curve in your back is flattened out, and your neck is twisted to the side, so propping your head up with a massive pillow is going to just make things worse.

You can also reduce any lower back pain you might have by placing a pillow underneath your hips or abdomen while sleeping on your stomach.

Do what feels comfortable and natural.

There is no perfect position.

I repeat: there is NO perfect position for sleep.

Back pain sufferers should try sleeping on their sides, snorers should try sleeping on their stomachs, and people with stiff necks should try sleeping on their backs. Experiment a little, maybe track your sleep progress as you go, and settle with what feels right.

This article was originally published on Slothstorm.com. Sign up to get your free list of 28 Daily Must-Do Habits for Getting Sh*t Done and Becoming a Better Person.

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Last Updated on June 15, 2018

What Really Works: How to Relieve Lower Back Pain Effectively

What Really Works: How to Relieve Lower Back Pain Effectively

Eight out of ten adults experience lower back pain once in their lifetime. I am one of those people and I’m definitely not looking forward to my participation award. I know how it feels like to step out of bed and barely being able to put on your socks. Having lower back pain sucks. But 9 out of 10 patients that suffer from lower back pain don’t even know the primary cause of it.

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Back Pain? Blame Our Evolution

Once upon a time in our fairly recent past, our ancestors felt the urgency to stand up and leave our quadruped neighbors behind. Habitual bipedalism, fancy word for regularly walking on two legs, came with a lot of advantages. With two rear limbs instead of four, we were able to more efficiently use our hands and create tools with them.

Sadly, life on two legs also brought along its disadvantages. Our spine had four supporting pillars previously, but now it only got two. The back is therefore naturally one of the weak links of our human anatomy. Our spine needs constant support from its supporting muscles to minimize the load on the spine. With no muscle support (tested on dead bodies) the back can only bear loads up to 5 pounds without collapsing [reference Panjabi 1989]. With well-developed torso muscles, the spine can take loads up to 2000 pounds. That’s a 400-fold increase.

Most people that come to me with a history of a herniated disc (that’s when the discs between the vertebral bodies are fully collapsed, really severe incident), tell me the ‘story of the pencil’. The injury with the following severe pain usually gets triggered by picking up a small, everyday object. Such as a pencil. Not as you may think by trying to lift 100 pounds – no, but by a simple thing – such as a pencil.

This tells us that damage in your back adds up over time, it’s a so called cumulative trauma disorder. Meaning back pain is a result of your daily habits.

Sitting Is the New Smoking

Whenever I sit for too long, my back hurts. In fact, 54% of Americans who experience lower back pain spend the majority of their workday sitting. But isn’t sitting something that should reduce the stress of your back? No, just the opposite.

The joints between the bones of the spine are not directly linked to the blood supply. These joints instead get nourished through a process called diffusion. Diffusion works because molecules (such as oxygen, important for cells) are constantly moving and try to get as much space for themselves as they can. A key element for diffusion therefore is a pressure difference. In the image below the left room contains more moving molecules than the right, that’s why the molecules from the left are moving to the right. This way nutrition gets transformed into the joints, whereas toxins are transported out of the joints.

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Sitting puts a lot of pressure on your spinal chord. The diffusion process therefore can’t function as efficiently. Nutrition and toxins can’t be properly transported, the joints get damaged.

    Sit Properly

    If sitting can play such a huge part in the creation of your lower back pain, how do you sit properly then?

    Is it better to sit with a straight back or should you rather lay back in your chair? Can I cross my legs when I’m sitting or should I have a symmetrical position with my feet? These are questions that I hear on a daily basis. The answer might shock you – according to recent science – all of them are right. The best sitting position is an ever-changing one. An ever-changing position minimizes the pressure on certain points of your spine and spreads it on the whole part.

      Credit: StayWow

      Stand Up More

      Even better than a sitting position is a stand up position. Standing dramatically reduces the pressure on your spine. If you’re forced to work on a desk the whole day though, you have two options.

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      Take breaks every hour of about 2-3 minutes.

      Set an alarm on your phone that goes off every hour! In that time you stand up and reach to the ceiling, on your toe tips with fully extended arms. You’re inhaling during the whole process. You do this activity for 20 seconds. Afterwards you’re walking through the office for the next 2 minutes. You might grab a healthy snack or some water in that time. The exercise relieves the pressure on your spine, while the walking makes sure that the joints on your spine are properly used.

      Or get a standing desk.

      One of the best companies on the market for Standing Desks, according to my research, is Autonomous. Autonomous offers a rather cheap Standing Desk, with the ability to change the height. Which means you can start the day standing and switch to sitting if you’re tired.

      Exercise for Lower Back Pain

      Sitting is an immobile position. Your joints are made for movement and therefore need movement to function properly. If humans are moving, all moving parts: e.g. the joints, bones and muscles get strengthened. If you’re in a rested position for too long, your tissues start to deteriorate. You have to get the right amount of activity in.

      But not too much activity. There’s a chance that going to the gym may even increase your risk of lower back pain. I know plenty of friends with chiseled bodies that suffer from pain in the spine regularly. Huge muscles do not prevent you from back pain. In your training you should focus on building up the muscles that are stabilizing your back and relieve pressure. Squats with 400 pounds don’t do the trick.

      The more weight you carry around, the more weight your spinal chord has to bear on a regular basis. That’s one of the reasons why huge, muscular guys can suffer from back pain too. One of the most important goals of your exercise regimen should therefore be weight loss.

      Here are some important tips for you to consider when starting an exercise regimen:

      Make sure you implement cardiovascular training in your workout routine.

      This will not only help you lose weight, it will also make sure that your arteries, which flow to the tissue next to your spinal discs, are free of placque and can therefore transport nutrients properly.

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      Important: If you have rather strong back pain, maybe even an herniated disc, don’t start running on a threadmill. Running is an high-impact exercise. Which means there are continuous, reocurring high pressure points on your spine. Your endurance training should therefore either be fast-paced walking or a training on the elliptical trainer for the beginning, because both have little to no stressful impact on your backbone.

      Focus on developing your whole core if you want to minimize your pain.

      There are some people that do hundreds of sit ups a day. While sit ups are a good exercise for your abdomen, it also puts pressure on your spine due to the bending movement. A sixpack workout routine is one-sided. Your abs may become overdeveloped in comparison to your back muscles. You’ve created an imbalance. A great way to train your abdominal muscles and back muscles simultaneously, is holding the plank position.

      Stretch only if you have tight muscles.

      I remember stretching every morning after I woke up. I took 10 minutes out of my day to just work on my flexibility and prevent injuries. Little did I know that I was actually promoting an injury, by doing so.

      Contrary to common belief, stretching is only partially beneficial to treating lower back pain. Stretching makes sense if tight muscles (such as the hamstrings) are forcing you to constantly bend your back. Stretching to treat pain doesn’t make sense if you’re already on a good level of flexibility. Hyper-mobility may even enforce back pain.

      If you found out that you had tight muscles that you need to stretch, try to stretch them at least three times a week. Don’t stretch your muscles right after you wake up in the morning. This is because your spinal discs soak themselves up in fluid over the nighttime. Every bending and excessive loads on your spine is much worse in that soaked-up state. Postpone your stretching regime to two-to three hours after you’ve woken up.

      Where to Start

      The key to improving your habits is awareness. Try to get aware of your back while you’re sitting down, laying down or lifting an object next time. This awareness of your body is called proprioception. For example, you have to be aware whether your back is bended or straight in this very second. Trust me, it is harder than you might think. You may need to ask a friend for the first few tries. But the change that this awareness can make in your back pain is absolutely fascinating. This consciousness of your body is one of the most important things in your recovery or prevention.

      Here are a few behavioural tactics that you need to be considering:

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      If you’re leaning forward more than 30 degrees with your upper body, support your spine with your arms.

      Ever tried to show a colleague of yours a complex issue and found yourself awkwardly leaning forward on their desk, pointing with your fingers to his paper? If that ever happens again, make sure you’re using the not-pointing arm to support yourself on the desk.

      Keep a straight back.

      Be it while exercising, stretching or standing. If you’re bending your back you’re putting stress on small areas of your spinal chord. A straight back redistributes the force to a bigger area. You’re minimizing the pressure. Remember this whenever you’re at the gym and reracking your weights, focus on having a neutral spine.

      Put symmetrical loads on your spine.

      I used to play the trumpet when I was a child. The instrument is pretty heavy. The trumpet gets transported in a big, metallic suitcase – with no wheels. Being the nature of suitcases, you only carry it with one arm, on one side of your body. This forced me to constantly lean on the other side with my upper body, while transporting the instrument from A to B. Not really the healthiest activity for your spine as you can imagine.

      If you have to carry heavy objects, carry them with both arms. Put the object in the middle of your body and keep it as close to your mass of gravity as you can. If this is not possible, try to carry the same amount on the left side than you do on the right side. This puts the stress vertically on a fully extended spine. The load is much better bearable for your spine.

      Stay Away From the Back Pain League

      Our world is getting more sedentary. We will continue to develop faster transportation, more comfortable houses and easier lives. While our technological progress definitely has its amazing benefits, it sadly has its downsides too. The danger for back pain will continue to rise on our ever-increasing motionless planet. It’s time to raise awareness.

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