If you struggle to find the best position to sleep for upper back pain, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Chronic pain is a leading cause of insomnia, with as many as 50% of people with spinal pain reporting that their problem has a significant impact on their sleep.
The good news -if you’ll pardon the pun- is that you don’t have to take this problem lying down.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll share with you our top 3 expert tips on the best sleeping positions for upper back pain, along with more bonus tips on how to enjoy the quality sleep you deserve.
What Causes Upper Back Pain at Night?
It’s no secret that waking up multiple times a night due to upper-back pain can quickly make your life miserable, but there are more important things going on than simply being unable to enjoy enough cozy time under the sheets.
Sleep quality and back pain have a bidirectional relationship with one another. To put that another way: the more back pain keeps us awake at night, the less quality sleep we get.
Since we need enough hours of quality sleep to help our bodies heal and repair, it follows that the less quality sleep we get, the longer our back pain persists. The longer our back pain persists, the less we’re able to sleep well, and so on in what can sometimes feel like an endless vicious cycle.
The root cause of that vicious cycle could be any number of things, though the following are the most common culprits.
1. Unsupportive Mattress And Pillows
Mattress quality has long been associated with back pain. If your mattress is too stiff or doesn’t provide enough support, it could be preventing you from maintaining healthy spinal alignment, resulting in back pain.
Likewise, if your pillow is too high off the mattress or too soft, it could be causing you to sleep with your neck and shoulders in an uncomfortable position which further affects your back.
We’ll talk more about the benefits of upgrading your mattress later in this guide. For now, if you think your mattress is the cause of your nightly back pain, here’s our guide to the best mattresses to buy.
2. “Tech Neck”
Here at Sweet Island Dreams, we’re often advising you that using blue-light-emitting devices such as tablets and cell phones is one of the most important things to avoid before bed.
The blue light from those devices tricks the brain into thinking it’s still daytime and engages that part of the brain that makes us feel awake and alert and hinders the release of melatonin, a natural hormone that helps us to sleep.
More pertinent to back pain sufferers, using our phones and tablets in bed can lead to a condition known as ‘Tech Neck.’
Also referred to by the older-term “text neck”, the condition is an example of repetitive strain injury caused by our posture while using our devices.
Think about the last time you sat up in bed scrolling through Facebook. Chances are you were sitting with your shoulders either slumped down or hunched up and your head bent forward.
Maintaining that posture over any length of time (especially if it’s part of your nightly ritual) can lead to degeneration of the spinal discs.
This is why so many people who use their devices in bed struggle to sleep with neck and shoulder pain, though the pain can also spread across the upper back.
If you can’t resist catching up on your socials before you turn the lights out, that may be the reason why back pain is disrupting your sleep.
3. Herniated Discs
Though herniated discs are a more common problem among people with lower back pain, it’s not uncommon for the problem to also affect the upper back.
A herniated disc occurs when part of the soft cushion separating two of your vertebra (known as ‘discs’) pushes through and bears pressure down on the spine. This can result in tremendous pain or even numbness in the arms and legs.
If you try lying on a herniated disc, this is only going to add more pressure to what can already be an agonizing problem, thus the reason why you can’t enjoy uninterrupted sleep.
4. Overusing Your Back Muscles
If you overdid it in the gym or on the sports field or if you spent all day repeatedly lifting heavy items at work, there’s a good chance that your muscles could become strained or overly tight.
Though the process of keeping busy may distract us from any pain during the day, by the time we get in bed, we’ve nothing left to distract us. As a result, the muscle soreness accumulated through the day can feel much worse.
5. Sleep Position
Last but certainly no means least, the way you lie in bed can be a major contributor to all kinds of pain, including your upper back.
Certain sleep postures can put physical stress on the spine, which not only causes pain but also prevents us from getting the quality sleep we need to heal any existing back pain.
With that in mind, let’s look at the best sleeping positions for upper back pain.
Top 3 Best Positions to Sleep For Upper Back Pain
Regardless of whether it’s your sleep posture, overuse, or a chronic case of tech neck that’s causing your nightly back-pain woes, adopting one of the following three positions can help you to enjoy pain-free rest and ultimately enjoy long-term healing and recovery.
1. On Your Back With Pillows
As we discussed in our ultimate guide to the best sleeping positions, lying on your back is one of the most beneficial sleeping positions for back pain.
To do this in a way that’s most conducive to pain relief, place a small pillow under your head and neck and a second pillow under your knees.
This will help to maintain the natural curve of your spine so that there’s no added pressure and, thus, no added pain.
The Drawbacks of Sleeping on Your Back
It’s at this point that we should point out how sleeping on your back in this way can cause almost as many problems as it solves.
Back sleeping is one of the worst sleeping positions for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) as gravity pulls the tongue over the breathing tube, causing the kind of blockages that can result in an apnea episode.
Even if you don’t struggle with sleep apnea, lying on your back can make your snoring worse.
If sleeping on your back is causing apnea episodes or snoring, or if you happen to be pregnant, try one of the following alternative sleep positions.
2. In a Reclined Position
Another leading cause of back pain that we haven’t mentioned yet is isthmic spondylolisthesis. This is a condition in which one vertebra slips over another, resulting in pain.
If you’re living with isthmic spondylolisthesis, if you’re pregnant, or if you simply find lying flat on your back with pillows to be too uncomfortable, try sleeping in a reclined position instead.
To do this, use a supportive pillow for your neck and head with further pillows under your lumbar region to keep yourself propped up.
3. On Your Side
If all else fails, you can also switch to the tried-and-trusted method of sleeping on your side.
Sleeping on the left-hand side, in particular, can help reduce snoring and sleep apnea episodes. More importantly, if done properly, it can help you keep that all-important healthy spinal position.
To sleep on your side, place a pillow between your knees to help keep your hips and lower spine in alignment.
With regards to your pillow, it should be neither too high that your neck arches upwards when you lie down nor too soft that your head sinks downwards, putting more strain on the neck.
Instead, use a relatively flat pillow that helps keep your hips, shoulders, and the rest of your body aligned properly.
The Best Way to Sleep to Prevent Upper Back Pain: Do’s and Don’ts
If you’re already sleeping on your back or side but find that your upper back pain isn’t going away as quickly as you’d like, the following suggestions can help you to improve the quality of your sleep even further.
Do: Upgrade Your Mattress
As we’ve already established, a poor quality mattress can be a leading cause of nighttime back pain.
With that in mind, one of the most helpful things you can do to get a better night’s sleep is to upgrade your mattress.
Research shows us that medium-firm mattresses are the most effective in improving back pain.
If you’re ready to replace yours, why not read our latest mattress reviews to find the best medium-firm mattress for you.
Don’t: Use Your Devices in Bed
Spending the last moments of your day hunched over your cell phone while sitting up in bed is only going to put further strain on the neck, shoulder, and back muscles, the immediate effects of which you’ll start to feel while you’re trying to doze off.
To enjoy better sleep then, keep your devices out of the bedroom and be mindful of how much you’re adopting a posture that may give you “tech neck” throughout the day.
Do: Exercise Your Core
We’ve talked time and time again about how getting regular exercise can improve your sleep quality, but that’s not the only reason to spend time working out.
Engaging in exercises that target your abdomen, pelvis, hips, and lower back (collectively known as your ‘core’) helps you to strengthen those muscles and make them more flexible.
This reduces the risk of straining your back due to overactivity during the day and means that you’re less likely to be bothered by added pressure while lying down.
Don’t: Neglect Your Mental Wellbeing
Did you know that there’s a link between stress and pain?
When we’re overly stressed, our breathing changes, and this can put added pressure on the back. We also tend to tense up a lot more when we’re stressed or anxious. Repeatedly tensing our back and shoulder muscles throughout the day can leave them feeling tired and sore by the time we go to bed.
As such, it’s always worth incorporating some stress-relieving activities into your nightly pre-bed ritual, whether that’s meditating in bed, taking a relaxing bath, or listening to soothing music.
Frequently Asked Questions About Sleeping With Upper Back Pain
Should I sleep with a pillow if I have upper back pain?
Yes. If you’re lying on your back, a few well-placed pillows under the head, neck, and knees will help tremendously. If you’re on your side, stick with the pillow between your knees.
What sleeping position causes upper back pain?
Lying on your stomach is the worst sleeping position for back pain as it puts an enormous amount of pressure on your spine while also forcing you to turn your neck. This is why it’s better to sleep on your side or back.
Can lying in bed make back pain worse?
Our bodies take longer to heal when we’re inactive, so lying in any one position for too long is only going to make back pain worse. This is why it’s better to still engage in whatever physical activity you manage during the day and also why you may occasionally want to switch positions while you sleep.
Choosing The Best Position to Sleep For Upper Back Pain: A Final Word of Advice
If we could leave you with one final piece of advice today, it should be this:
Sleep is a very personal thing. As such, the best sleep position for upper back pain is whichever one helps you to feel the most comfortable.
So, sleeping flat on your back with pillows or in an elevated position may be the most conducive to maintaining your spine’s natural curve. And if that’s not working for you, there’s no harm in moving to your side -or any position you can think of- if it means you’re going to sleep comfortably enough to enjoy some restorative rest.
Likewise, though we always recommend using pillows for support, if they’re doing more harm than good, feel free to rearrange them -or even do away with them altogether- if that’s what helps you the most.
After all, what you’re really trying to achieve here is simply getting enough hours of restorative rest so that you can heal that pain for good.
For more advice on how to do that, see our complete guide to the benefits of maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. Alternatively, if it’s stress that’s causing your pain and keeping you awake all night, here’s our guide on how to sleep better when stressed.