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What Your Sleep Position Says About Your Health

What Your Sleep Position Says About Your Health

You're not alone if you don’t give a lot of thought to the way you sleep at night — or know which sleep position you prefer for that matter — but even the slightest adjustment to your positioning can have lasting effects on your health. Learn more about the risks and benefits associated with each sleep position.




When it comes to sleep, we all have our preferences. Chances are that you have some consistency in your sleep routine. Whether you're a night owl or an early bird, you likely have a favorite sleeping position. Depending on your personal habits, you may prefer to sleep on your back, side or stomach.

Unfortunately, your favorite position could be of detriment to your health, causing general soreness or even affecting more serious conditions like sleep apnea. Practicing good sleep habits — often referred to as “sleep hygiene” — can help you improve your sleep quality for a better night's rest.

Good sleep hygiene is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Some quick things you can adjust for a better night's sleep include staying active during the day and avoiding large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bed. But once you've eliminated some of these other negative factors, it's time to set your sights on your sleep position.

Let's get one thing out of the way: sleep positions are not one-size-fits-all. There are several sleep styles, and each of them is associated with different benefits and problems depending on your unique conditions and health requirements. The following factors give you a few things to consider before settling on a sleep position:

  • Back and neck pain: When it comes to reducing pain, different sleeping positions can have mixed results. If you have soreness in your back and neck, experiment with various different positions and pillows to see what works best for you. In some cases, changing the firmness of your bed may be of benefit.
  • Snoring and sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles that support the soft tissues in your throat temporarily relax, which often goes hand-in-hand with snoring. Side sleeping is the preferred position for helping calm your sleep apnea.
  • Reflux and heartburn: If you experience heartburn, consider sleeping on your back with your head elevated. Otherwise, sleeping on your left side makes it more difficult for acids to escape the stomach.

Whether you're a side, stomach or back sleeper, we've prepared a few simple adjustments to help you improve your sleep health according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Sleeping on your side: Side sleeping, while beneficial in many ways, can lead to joint and shoulder pain.
    • How to improve it: With a few simple adjustments, you can take the strain off of your joints and shoulders. Start by placing a pillow between your knees. A full-length body pillow will work wonders. As for your shoulder, a firm wedge pillow can help reduce strain.
  • Sleeping on your stomach: Stomach sleeping can be hard on your neck and back. Problems with the lower back are particularly related to sleeping on your stomach.
    • How to improve it: If you can't seem to sleep any other way, you can reduce strain on your back by placing a pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen. For some, this solves the problem of the lower back but introduces new issues with head placement. If this adds noticeable discomfort, try sleeping without a pillow under your head.
  • Sleeping on your back: On top of having harmful effects on sleep apnea, back sleeping can cause lower back pain and make existing back pain worse.
    • How to improve it: Start by placing a pillow under your knees to mimic the normal curvature of your body. A small, rolled towel under the small of your back can provide additional support. An elevated pillow for the head can reduce the effects of heartburn and acid reflux.

If you experience back and neck pain, heartburn, acid reflux or you have sleep apnea, you may benefit from reexamining your sleep position. It's no secret that poor sleep is directly linked to chronic health issues. While each sleep position has its own benefits and problems, developing new sleep strategies based on scientific research can help you optimize your sleep hygiene. If you are in need of a better night’s sleep, consult with a sleep specialist at El Camino Health today.


This article first appeared in the February 2022 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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