One of rest's main purposes is restoration. “When we sleep,” explains Dr. Andrew Yaun, chiropractic sports physician, “the body physiologically shifts gears, rerouting more blood to our immune system and organs. Because of this change, the immune system works at its highest levels during sleep, allowing us to heal, combat sickness or build muscle.
When we’re suffering a tweaked knee, stiff neck or any other sort of nagging injury, however, it can feel as though rest is working against us, that every way we lay we choose is agonizing. The key, then, is to be a bit more thoughtful about your sleeping position.
In general, Dr. Yaun says the best sleep position is on the back, with your arms by your side or on your stomach, as it’s an anatomically neutral position that “puts little strain on the musculoskeltal system.”
When you’re hurt, however, this isn’t ideal. There are ways to optimize the healing process and make you more able to sleep soundly. Here are some positions Yaun recommends to try when you’re recovering from an injury.
If you’re going to sleep with a headache, or happen to wake up in pain, examine how you and your pillow get along.
“Look at your head position and pillow height,” says Yaun. “Ideally your head should be in a neutral position – ears in line with the shoulder – without tilting.” Examine the firmness and size of your pillow – a fluffier pillow provides more cushion and better air flow, while a firm pillow is ideal for support. Find the one that’s right for you and adjust accordingly.
Again, tuck a pillow under the knees for supine (on your back) sleeping, and between the knees when you’re sleeping laterally (on your side), is recommended.
“If you have back pain combined with hip or knee pain, go to a doctor to address the situation before it becomes worse,” advises Dr. Yaun. Knee pain can lead to hip pain, and hip pain can lead to back pain, a phenomenon professionals refer to as affecting things “up stream”.
Dr. Yaun advises sleeping with a pillow underneath your knees when sleeping on your back, to prevent the lower back from arching too much. If you sleep on your side, sleep with a pillow in between your knees. Doing so will keep the weight of your upper leg from pulling your spine out alignment, reducing stress on your hips and lower back.
If you have a nagging shoulder injury, it’s common sense to avoid sleeping on the affected shoulder. Sleep on your back or “good” side and, if possible, use extra pillows to prevent yourself from rolling over. If you do land on your affected shoulder, Yaun warns that your body weight can compress the shoulder and stretch the joint. “This will also affect ligaments and tendons, resulting in abnormal stress and pain and, in some extreme cases, dislocation.”
If you suffer from a deviated septum, Dr. Yaun advises you to sleep on your side with a pillow between your legs. “The pillow should be raised a little to account for your shoulder height. And if you have a more advanced sleeping system, you can raise the torso about 7-10 degrees, which allows for easier breathing.”