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The Best Sleep Position for Back Pain and 10 Other Health Problems

This handy guide will help you figure out how to lie down for optimal health.

What’s the best sleep position?

The ideal sleeping position for you depends on your individual health and wellbeing. So we asked doctors to explain how you should sleep to relieve or prevent everything from back and shoulder pain to acne, wrinkles, and more.

older man sleeping in bedJose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images

Back pain

Sleeping wrong could do your spine major damage (along with these 10 other surprising things that cause back pain). The trick to reducing back pain is keeping your spine in its natural curve. Your best bets are lying on your back or side with a pillow strategically placed to take stress off your lower back, says Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, chief of spine service education at NYU Langone’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. “Often people are more comfortable on their back if there’s a pillow behind their knees, or between the knees if they’re on their side,” he says. (Here are 10 steps to take if your back hurts in the morning.)

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Shoulder pain

Sleeping on the side with your pain-free shoulder could help, but you’ll run the risk of flipping over during the night and putting more pressure on the one that hurts, says Charles Bae, MD, sleep specialist at the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic. “Some mattresses give a bit so there’s less pressure on the joints of your shoulders or hips, but if it’s firm or stiff, it’s like laying on the floor and experiencing discomfort, causing you to shift positions,” he says. Start on your back or stomach instead to lessen your chance of ending in an uncomfortable spot.

woman sleeping in bedCozine/Shutterstock

Hip pain

You can relieve sore hips by from lying on your back, which straightens out the curve of the spine to put less pressure on the hips, says Priyanka Yadav, DO, sleep medicine specialist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. “You don’t want to put more pressure on the area that hurts, because that will cause even more pain and night, and the pain will cause even lighter stages of sleep,” she says.

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Neck pain

Are you guilty of these 7 innocent habits that hurt your neck? The right set of pillows will keep your head even with your shoulders, reducing neck pain during the night. Find a stack height that stops you from straining your neck up or down, says Dr. Goldstein. Just be careful not to use too many, warns Dr. Bae. “In an effort to find a comfortable sleep position, some people get a huge, fluffy pillow, or double up on pillows,” he says. “They’re comfortable, but they don’t think about their head in relation to their neck.”

cropped shot of woman's legs in bedBoy_Anupong/Getty Images

Knee pain

When you’re asleep, you might not realize what’s causing aches in your knees. “A lot of knee pain is from when legs are touching each other,” says Dr. Bae. He recommends putting a pillow or something else soft between your legs to reduce the contact. (If you’re a fitness fiend, these 6 exercises can reduce knee pain when you run.)

Man snoring because of sleep apnea lying in the bedtommaso79/Shutterstock

Snoring

If your partner is complaining about your bear-like snores, try these 11 tricks to stop snoring, then shifting to sleep on your side. “On your back, gravity pushes everything back into the airways and makes the airways smaller with disturbances in airflows,” says Dr. Yadav. Elevate your head with two or three pillows to help drainage go down more easily too, she says. (These home remedies for snoring could be life-changing. Just check with a doctor to make sure you don’t have this deadly condition snoring signals.)

woman sleeping overheadDean Drobot/Shutterstock

TMJ

If you’ve got temporomandibular joint dysfunction or another type of jaw pain, keep your cheeks off your pillow by sleeping face up. “Don’t keep your face on its side, because that can put pressure on the joints or the jaw itself and make the pain worse,” says Ana Paula Ferraz-Dougherty, DDS, spokesperson for the American Dental Association. (Find out how to tell if your mouth pain is turning into a dental emergency.)

Morning of young African-American woman sleeping in bedPixel-Shot/Shutterstock

Obstructive sleep apnea

Check with a doctor to find out if your teeth grinding or snoring is caused by obstructive sleep apnea. The condition happens when your upper airway is partially or totally blocked when you’re asleep, making you lurch awake when you finally get a good gulp of air. “It’s most commonly caused when you lay back at night and your tongue falls back naturally and your tongue causes the obstruction,” says Dr. Dougherty. Stay off your back to keep your tongue from blocking your airway, she recommends.

Soft and relaxing pillow,Asian girls are sleeping in a comfortable bedNumPhanu The StockLover/Shutterstock

Heartburn

When your stomach valve relaxes enough to let acid come up into the esophagus, you feel the burning sensation of acid reflux. Studies have shown that sleeping on your left side helps heartburn symptoms, likely because it doesn’t let that valve open as easily, says David Johnson, MD, chief of gastroenterology and professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and past president of the American College of Gastroenterology. Use gravity to your advantage by keeping your upper body elevated with a wedge-shaped pillow. “They have a little gravity to help them,” Dr. Johnson says. “Acid will more likely go back down quicker if they have that elevation.” For the best result, use a pillow that tapers down from about eight to ten inches—simply stacking flat pillows will engage your abs and increase pressure on your stomach, he says.

Top view of handsome young man sleeping with his hand tucked under headbaranq/Shutterstock

Wrinkles

Consistently sleeping on a certain side can put pressure on that side, creating wrinkles. “Often I can tell what side a person sleeps on,” says Zakia Rahman, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at Stanford University. “I can tell they must be a right- or left-side sleeper because one side of the face tends to age faster than the other.” Sleeping on your back will keep your face from rubbing against your pillow, but if you can’t fall asleep that way, Dr. Rahman recommends alternating which side you lie on. And don’t forget about these everyday habits that can cause wrinkles.

Portrait of a young girl sleeping on a pillowKryvenok Anastasiia/Shutterstock

Acne

Your sheets can trap oil from your skin, leading to breakouts. As long as you wash your bedding once a week, you can sleep however feels most comfortable. But if you know you don’t clean them regularly, try to keep your facial skin off your dirty pillowcase. “If you’re on your back, your face is basically not touching anything,” says Dr. Yadav. Next, check out these 50 other ways to sleep better.

Sources
  • Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, chief of spine service education at NYU Langone’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Charles Bae, MD, sleep specialist at the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic
  • Priyanka Yadav, DO, sleep medicine specialist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
  • Ana Paula Ferraz-Dougherty, DDS, spokesperson for the American Dental Association
  • David Johnson, MD, chief of gastroenterology and professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School
  • Zakia Rahman, MD, FAAD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at Stanford University