How to Sleep Pain-Free in Any Position

Man sleeping with pillow cradled under arm

It happens to the best of us – that feeling of waking up in the morning with a stiff neck or sore back. While everyone will experience pain in the mornings occasionally, regular aches during or after sleep could be a sign that your sleep position needs some fine-tuning.

Why do I feel sore after a night’s sleep?

Pain, soreness, or stiffness in your joints and muscles after a night’s sleep often occurs because your body wasn’t resting in a properly supported position. When you lie down on a flat surface, your body will suddenly experience gravity a bit differently, and certain areas will take on more pressure than others. Typically, the neck, shoulders, spine, hips, and knees will experience extra stress while lying down. Depending on the way you sleep (more on this below), it can be difficult to keep them all in comfortable, neutral positions for an entire night of sleep. This results in those pesky morning aches and pains.

Luckily, you can assess your sleep position and make a few subtle adjustments to help you get better rest and wake up without soreness.

Best sleeping posture for side sleepers

Side sleeping positions done correctly and incorrectly

When sleeping on your side, your neck, shoulders, spine, and hips can often fall out of alignment. Because this posture will put extra pressure particularly on the shoulders and hips, the spine between them can tend to sag or curve unnaturally. Also, the hips may become misaligned due to poor mattress support and improper leg placement.

To sleep most comfortably on your side, it helps to try:

  • Switching to a softer mattress that will gently hug your curves without putting too much pressure against them
  • Putting a pillow between your knees to promote hip and spinal alignment
  • Lying with a slight bend in your hips and knees (but be careful not to overexaggerate these bends into a fetal position)
  • Using a pillow that isn’t too thick to keep your head and neck aligned with your spine

Side sleeping is the most preferred position, and likely for good reason. Health-wise, it’s perhaps the best sleeping posture you can choose, especially if you sleep on your left side more often. Generally, side sleeping is beneficial, although there are a few potential drawbacks to keep in mind.

Pros:

  • Improves digestion and blood flow
  • Opens airways to prevent snoring and sleep apnea
  • Reduces joint and/or back pain
  • May help you sleep cooler by exposing more bodily surface area

Cons:

  • May exacerbate existing ear, shoulder, or hip pain
  • May cause wrinkles

Best sleeping posture for stomach sleepers

Correct and incorrect stomach sleeping positions

Sleeping comfortably on your stomach presents many challenges because it puts your neck and spine in an unnatural position. With your head turned to one side or the other, it’s impossible to achieve proper spinal alignment. Additionally, when lying on your stomach your torso may naturally sink forward into the mattress, causing your back to overarch. People in this position might also have a natural inclination to bring one leg up to the side, which can misalign the hips and cause lower back pain.

Experts often caution against stomach sleeping, especially if you suffer from joint or back pain already. But if it’s truly the only way you feel comfortable, making the following adjustments can help reduce the strain on your body:

  • Using a thin pillow or no pillow at all. If comfortable for the sleeper, a thin pillow can be placed beneath the forehead, enabling room to breathe while the head and neck face forward.
  • Placing a small pillow beneath the pelvis to prevent sinking and take pressure off the spine
  • Keeping both legs straight outward
  • Keeping your arms down and to your sides
  • Sleeping on a firm mattress that’ll support high pressure areas from sinking

Although there are certain conditions that may be improved with stomach sleeping, the cons tend to outweigh the pros.

Pros:

  • May reduce sleep apnea and snoring

Cons:

  • May cause back, hip, or neck pain
  • May cause arm numbness
  • May cause wrinkles

Best sleeping posture for back sleepers

Correct and incorrect positioning for back sleeping

Luckily, if you’re a back sleeper, you’re likely resting in a neutral position already. On your back, weight tends to distribute more evenly across the mattress, allowing your spine to curve naturally. This even distribution also means that your joints can rest relatively stress-free.

While getting properly positioned when sleeping on your back is straightforward, it can cause lower back pain if the spine and legs aren’t properly supported. If you do wake up with aches and pains after sleeping on your back, consider making these adjustments:

  • Placing a small pillow beneath the lower back
  • Placing a small pillow beneath the knees
  • Using a pillow that supports your neck in a neutral position parallel to your spine
  • Choosing a medium firm mattress that will help keep your spine aligned and not overarched

On your back can be the best way to sleep with lower back pain and also an optimal way to sleep with neck pain. There is a lot of upside to back sleeping (literally and figuratively), but as with any sleep position, you should consider your specific health conditions to assess if it’s right for you.

Pros:

  • Can improve lower back or neck pain
  • Can improve acid reflux and heartburn
  • Helps avoid wrinkles and puffy eyes

Cons:

  • May worsen sleep apnea and snoring

Other ways to sleep pain-free

Apart from choosing the right mattress and taking steps to optimize your current position, there are a few other ways you can reduce pain and soreness during and after a night’s sleep.

  • Stretch regularly. Stretching before bed and in the morning can help you wind down and avoid stiffness. Concentrate on high pressure areas like the neck, shoulders, hips, and back.
  • Don’t feel confined to a single position. Although many people have a favorite sleep position, most of us still move around throughout the night, and that’s good for joint health and spinal alignment. Switching between your back and side, for example, can help you avoid morning stiffness.
  • Try zero gravity. If you have taken measures to improve your sleep posture, but your pain persists, consider an adjustable bed that can put you into a zero gravity position designed specifically to eliminate pressure points.
  • Always prioritize good sleep. Changing your position just because you think it’s healthier than another isn’t always the answer, especially not if it means you won’t sleep as peacefully. So, if attempting to become a back sleeper has you tossing and turning all night long and yawning your way through the following day, it’s not worth it. Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. If your current position helps you get good rest and doesn’t leave you feeling achy, there’s likely no reason to change it.