Is sleep becoming a pain in your neck?

Sleep…wonderful sleep. We all likely don’t get enough of it, but when we do, we sure don’t want it to be causing us pain! Whether your sleep position is causing you discomfort or an unrelated injury is causing you to lose sleep, these precious hours in our day are crucial for our health and well being.

Pain related sleep loss affects millions of people around the globe. A 2015 Sleep in America Poll, found that 57% of the adult population experience pain during the night, whether it’s chronic at 21%, or an acute episode, at 36%.  This correlates to another main concern related to both sleep and pain – poor health.  Shorter sleep durations and poor sleep quality have been closely linked to stress and poor health.

 This is a broad topic and one that can take many tangents! Let’s start with discussing some common sleeping positions and why they may be doing more harm than good. As well, I’ll identify some helpful tips on achieving a better nights sleep.

Your Pillow
A pillow should position your head so that it’s in a healthy, neutral position.  If your pillow is too high or too low, your neck will be side bent for several hours of the night. This can cause compression on one side of the neck and a stretch on the other. This may cause people to wake up with a kink in their neck that may lead to a nerve impingement and pain radiating down the arm.  Consider a feather or memory pillow appropriate for your size that molds to the shape of your neck.

Neck Sleepers
Inevitably this position wreaks havoc on both the neck and lower back. Stomach sleepers have a favorite side they like turning their head to during the night, which causes muscle shortening on one side and muscle lengthening on the opposite side. The cervical spine is fully rotated one direction, placing stress on discs and surrounding soft tissue. Regardless of the firmness of your mattress, the lower back is placed in slight extension while stomach lying. This position places the lumbar extensor muscles in a shortened position and compression on the lumbar discs. There really is no modification for this position – just try to avoid it all together! Placing pillows in front and behind you in a side lie position can help prevent you from sneaking on your stomach throughout the night.

Side Sleepers
This is typically the best position to sleep in. However, if not supported properly, this position can put stress on the hips, pelvis, low back, shoulders and neck (that doesn’t sound good!). Again, the pillow height is key to keeping your spine in neutral. The lower shoulder should be out straight or bent at the elbow. Try avoiding tucking that lower arm under your head. This puts stress on the rotator cuff muscles, the shoulder joint capsule, and surrounding nerve tissue. The upper arm should be resting on a thick pillow that keeps that arm level with your upper shoulder. Avoid curling that upper arm in and rolling forward onto it.  Regarding the lower body, if your legs are off set (one is straight, the upper is bent), your lumbar spine is in rotation and the upper hip is on a stretch.  This may cause lower back pain, sacral joint pain, hip muscle imbalances and nerve pain that may radiate down the leg. A pillow placed between the knees and ankles can work wonders for lower back, hip and knee pain. The lumbar spine remains in neutral, the pelvis is in neutral and the hip, knee and ankle are aligned. Another option is to keep the knee of the upper leg just slightly tucked behind the lower knee. This will also help to keep the spine and pelvis in more optimal alignment.

Besides sleeping positions here are a few ideas shown to promote a better nights sleep:

A lack of exercise can contribute to poor sleep. Muscle tension and stress can build up in the body and exercise has been shown to increase endorphins, and decrease anxiety and depressive symptoms. However, vigorous exercise too close to bed can disrupt sleep by increasing your body temperature and stimulating your brain and muscles. Most research recommends exercising at least 3 hours before bedtime to let your body wind down and relax.

Yoga has been described as a union of mind, body, and spirit. The series of poses promotes relaxation, breathing and flexibility. A study on kundalini yoga for the treatment of insomnia found a significant improvement in sleep efficiency, sleep time, number of awakenings and quality of sleep after 8 weekly 30min sessions.

The intake of caffeine, alcohol and nicotine has been shown to have a pronounced effect on sleep, causing insomnia and restlessness. Watch for hidden sources of caffeine such as in chocolate, cold and other over the counter medicines.  Cutting back on sugar can help sleep disruptions through the night as well.

Eating certain foods may help restore the natural sleep cycle in our bodies. The mineral magnesium has been deemed a natural sedative. A deficiency of magnesium may cause difficulty sleeping, constipation, cramps and pain. Foods rich in magnesium are legumes, seeds, dark leafy greens, almonds, and whole grains.

Acupuncture improves the body’s functions and promotes the natural self healing process by stimulating specific anatomic sites, commonly referred to as acupuncture points.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, insomnia often stems from a kidney energy weakness.

Establishing a healthy routine through nutrition, exercise and proper positioning throughout the night may help you achieve a more restful sleep. If you are experiencing pain from an injury that is keeping you up at night, we can help you determine how and why. Don’t let those sleepless nights add up – it may cost you more than your sanity!