Does it matter to your body what position you sleep in? Well, yes and no. I would like to give you a short answer, but in order to make sense, I am going to have to take the detour route on this one. Let’s start with a little background and a bit of a review from a prior post (May 2010 “Help Yourself Help Your Neck”).
The musculoskeletal system of our body, meaning the stuff we can actually control in some manner (good luck altering the position of you liver…) is made up of muscles, bones/joints, and nerves. Nerves basically tell our muscles how to move our joints, though this process function is much more complex than that. Muscles are pretty much reactors to what our brain is sending signals through our nerves to do, and since they really only know how to do one thing, and that is to either contract (shorten) or relax (lengthen) to move the joints and nerves that are attached to them, I consider them sort of the “dumb brother” of the three siblings. Here’s why:
Muscles only know how to move (by contracting and relaxing), and when they do, the joints and nerves they are moving are happy. The problem is, when we aren’t moving (most of us aren’t like 2 year olds who are in a constant state of changing position), the muscles still want to contract, and will. And then they get stiff, tighter, and they make you feel stiff and tighter, along with not allowing the joints to get the lubrication they need because of the lack of movement and the nerves may even get a little sensitized because you have been sort of ignoring them.
Now imagine your daily routine. You go to work, you sit at a desk, you look straight ahead most of the day and your back gets slumped until the 5 o’clock bell sounds. You go home, make some dinner, watch some tv or read a book, and then maybe go for a light walk if it’s a nice evening. How much do you think your neck and back muscles have actually moved through their full range of motion (meaning flexing, extending, rotating, and side bending)? My guess (from hearing the history of seeing many clients) is not much. That being said, do you think your body is stiff before you even go to bed? Yup.
So that brings you to the end of your day when you are going to be in a mostly static position for another 8 hours. I’m thinking you shouldn’t be looking for a “looseness miracle” in the morning to make you feel like you are 15 years old again. Proper positioning during night is helpful (see below) but even more importantly is having a good, quality sleep. That means your are rested and relaxed and you have a better chance of waking up without pain. But you need to go to bed a lot more mobile so you don’t stiffen up further during the night or you have no hope of waking up looser! Just talk to a physiotherapist on ways to get yourself looser throughout the day and my bet is your sleep will improve lots.
Specifically speaking though, and keeping in mind the above, I am most often going to recommend side sleeping (possibly with a pillow between your knees if you like that) or on your back (also possibly with a pillow below your knees if you arch a lot in your lower back in this position). Stomach sleeping can lead to a bit of neck problems because you have to breathe and so your head has to be turned one way or the other most of the night, which can stiffen your neck over time. For proper pillow information, check out my other blog (July 2011, “Can You Recommend A Pillow?”) which can affect sleep comfort as well as position.