Set Up Your Bed to Avoid Back Pain From Sleeping

From the mattress to your bedtime routine, better sleep can ease backaches.

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Here’s an all-too-familiar scene: you roll out of bed first thing in the morning, and there it is—that intense backache or neck pain. Thinking it will work itself out throughout the day and blaming it on stiffness, you go about your day, but you still experience pain. You go to bed with the same backache and wonder how to feel better.

Man in bed losing sleep because of back painSleep loss can be a major factor in back pain.

As it turns out, sleep loss can be a major factor when it comes to back pain. In fact, a 2011 study confirmed that chronic low back pain is linked to greater sleep disturbance, reduced sleep duration, and greater sleep dissatisfaction.

It’s a vicious cycle: You wake up with lower back pain from sleeping, so you don’t sleep well the next night, and that lack of good-quality sleep can feed into the pain the next day, and on and on it repeats like a recurring nightmare.

Back pain from your bed actually has to do with how your sleep-hungry brain senses the pain. Board certified High Performance Sleep Coach Michael Breus, PhD, emphasizes that perceived pain is higher with sleep loss.

Sleep experts will tell you that good sleep comes down to two main factors: your sleeping environment (i.e. your bed) and elements of your bedroom; and your bedtime routine. Those may be the main factors, but there are additional causes to attribute to back pain, says Dr. Breus.

 “To be fair, there are many factors that contribute to back pain, and of course, all pain can disrupt sleep. I think it is safe to call it multi-factorial,” he says. “The contributing factors I would consider would be weight, body mass index (BMI), prior spinal injury, back pain history, and current physical activity.”

If you’re already taking a closer look at those factors, but your sleep regimen could use a tune-up, read on for helpful steps to achieve the pain-relieving sleep you need.

Step One: Consider a New Mattress

The National Sleep Foundation reports that the average person spends around 3,000 hours sleeping on their mattress. Charla Fischer, MD, Spine Surgeon at the NYU Langone Spine Center, points out that even if your back pain isn’t caused by a worn-out mattress or poor sleep, it can still be magnified by them.

She says, “If someone has back pain due to back muscle weakness, poor work ergonomics, or spine problems such as a disc herniation or stenosis, a poor mattress or low-quality sleep can aggravate the pain.”

If you wake up more than two times a week feeling stiff and sore ( and it’s not from being a superhero at the gym) your body may be telling you it’s time for a new bed. "To be fair, I would also state that we generally do not need to stay on the same surface for longer than six to seven years," says Dr. Breus Either way a new bed may help.

Even though purchasing a mattress is ultimately a personal decision (Dr. Fischer says, “There is no one best option as everyone is different,” and, “People have different sleeping positions”), there are some features you can look for.

Dr. Fischer stresses that it’s key to “try it out in person” and “follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.” After that, you can be on the lookout for these main features, which Dr. Breus recommends:

  • A medium-firm mattress that’s not too firm or soft
  • Memory foam, which better supports the body
  • Latex, a material that contours to the body
  • An adjustable mattress that relieves pressure and allows you to sleep in most any position that helps your back pain

Step Two: Find a Better Pillow

Since a pillow supports a portion of your spine, it makes sense that the right pillow can aid in lessening overall back pain.

As Dr. Breus details in a blog post on his website, “Mattresses get a lot of attention, for good reason. Your mattress is the largest, most important financial investment you’ll make in your sleep. But when it comes to sleep quality, pillows are almost as important as your mattress.”

He also says that a pillow can help in achieving an aligned body, something that’s essential when reducing back pain, adding that pillows should be replaced every 18 months. Also, did you know that a pillow’s “fill power” indicates its quality and how long it will last? Dr. Breus believes that a fill-power of 600 and higher is an indicator of a superior pillow.

Apart from the pillow where you rest your head every night, back-pain sufferers have experienced relief after inserting a lumbar support cushion into their mattress or purchasing a mattress with the lumbar support already in it. One 2005 study says that participants who slept with a lumbar support inserted in a mattress had significantly decreased contact pressure in the pelvic area.

Also, you can also use a pillow to make your preferred sleep position more comfortable. Dr. Fischer says, “For back sleepers, a pillow under the legs can help back pain. For side sleepers, a pillow between the legs can help.”

Step Three: Tweak Your Routine

Beyond setting up the ideal bed, it’s necessary to take a hard look at your bedtime routine to make sure it’s conducive to high-quality sleep. 

First, take a look at the activities you do before bed.

“I would avoid reading, working, or watching TV in bed,” Dr. Fischer says. “The bed is not ergonomically designed for these activities.”

Instead, put your devices away before bed (blue light from electronics has been scientifically proven to disrupt sleep) and do a quiet, calming activity before hitting the sack, like reading a book in a nearby supportive chair. Turn down the thermostat—experts agree that an optimal bedroom temperature should be a cool 60 to 67 degrees—and treat your bed as a sleep sanctuary where, as Dr. Fischer said, you skip the overly-engaging, less than ergonomically-correct diversions.

Your back, and your energy level, just might thank you for your newfound dedication to improving your sleep. 

Updated on: 02/25/21
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