Healthy Sleeping Habits

Physical Therapists Share the Surprising Thing That’s Messing Up Your Back as You Sleep—And How To Fix It

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Getty Images/Photographer Basak Gurbuz Derman
Sleep positions are a heated topic. Whether you're a side sleeper, a back sleeper, or one of those rebels who passes out on your stomach (I have questions), you've probably received passionate, unsolicited backlash for the way you rest. Well, sorry to add to the chatter, but if you're among the crowd that snoozes like a Disney princess—meaning, on your back—one simple mistake may be leading to some serious low back pain from sleeping.

Physical therapists Brad Heinek, PT, and Bob Schrupp, PT recently told CNN that many people who drift off to sleep while lying flat on their backs tend to have lower back pain by the time their alarms go off in the morning—and there's a simple reason why. "Your spine should be in a neutral position when you're sleeping," said Schrupp, meaning that it shouldn't be rounded, extended, or twisted when you're sleeping. Put simply, you want your spine to be as flat as possible when you're sleeping.

You'd think sleeping flat on your back would ensure that you have a neutral spine, but it's not true for all bodies. The height of your butt may create a gap between your lower back and your mattress. This causes your lumbar spine (the five lowest vertebra) to strain as it sinks down toward the mattress. As a result, you wind up in a world of pain.

The good news? You can very easily close this gap and save yourself from the usual "my aching back!" monologue in the a.m.  "You're going to want to fill that gap at night," Schrupp says, in order to take the pressure off of your lower back. "We use a rolled sheet," he says, wrapping a white, loosely rolled sheet around Heinek's waist to demonstrate. There are also products you can buy that wrap around your body like a belt to provide that lower lumbar support (like the OPTP Original MacKenzie Night Roll, $40). If you're not willing to shell out, Heinek notes that a rolled-up towel or blanket work too.

This advice isn't just relevant to back sleepers. Even side sleepers can benefit from this support, Schrupp adds, since there might be a small gap between the side of your stomach and the mattress as well.

And there you have it, back sleepers. Just make sure you also have the right pillow to support your upper spine when it's time to turn the lights out.

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