Sleeping with spinal pain is no easy task. Because we move throughout the night, even if you start in a position that seems relatively comfortable, like on your back, you may find yourself suddenly waking from the returning pain after shifting to a side sleeping position.
Understanding what is causing this back pain, where it came from, and how to treat it can help you determine the best sleeping position for you.
One common source of spinal pain is disc herniation, sometimes referred to as a slipped, ruptured, or bulging disc. Something to note is that while the terms are often used interchangeably, disc herniation is actually different from a bulging disc and we’ll find out why below.
Let’s look at what it means to have a herniated disc.
What is a Herniated Disc?
Your spine consists of 33 bones, called vertebrae. They begin at the base of your skull and travel down to your tailbone. These vertebrae are the primary protectors of your spinal cord, which acts as the messenger from your brain relaying information to the rest of your body. Both the spinal cord and the brain are the core of your central nervous system, which is why back-related injuries and concerns should be treated with care.
Our bodies cannot just have bone stacked on top of bone because of the friction (and pain) it would cause. Therefore, in order to prevent the vertebrae from rubbing against each other, causing deterioration, there are cushions between each one made up of a firm exterior and softer “jelly-like” interior, much like a jelly-filled donut. These cushions also help to absorb the shock during movements, such as running or jumping, as well as aiding the spine in bending or twisting.
Disc herniation occurs when there is damage, like a tear, to the exterior cartilage of the intervertebral disc. The soft interior is then forced out, often putting pressure on nerves in the area. The difference between this and a bulging disc is that when the disc bulges, the outer layer does not actually rupture. It’s like sitting on a balloon just before it pops. Without the breaking of this layer, the inner (jelly) layer remains intact. A bulging disc is not often a cause of pain, but it is possible for it to result in a herniation of the disc if not treated carefully.
Where Does it Occur?
The general location where these discs tend to slip is in your lower back since most full-body movements stem from your lumbar spine. Sudden jolts can cause injury if you participate in extremely laborious activities, as well as occupations that require you to be seated for prolonged intervals (think truck drivers).
Slipped discs can also happen in your neck within the cervical vertebrae due to poor posture over an extended period of time, or trauma to the neck such as whiplash from an accident.
In other words, many long and short-term actions can result in disc herniation. While many people suffer from lower back or neck protrusions, these ruptures can happen anywhere within the spine.
- Numbness or Tingling (sometimes giving the feeling of pins and needles, like when your foot falls asleep) in the arms or legs. If you find that you are experiencing either of these symptoms, it is vital to alert your doctor as soon as possible.
- Local Pain in the Area of Protrusion or shooting pain caused by the pressure on the spinal nerves. One typical example of this is Sciatic nerve pain, which can be felt from the lower back down to the back of one leg, or both if the herniation is severe.
- Weakness in the Muscles, which can cause issues such as incontinence.
- No Symptoms At All – Some don’t experience any.
- Medication, such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, and pain relievers
- Cortisone Injections into the spine, which helps to minimize inflammation
- Epidural Steroid Injection (ESI), which can alleviate the pain for extended periods, as opposed to oral medication
- Physical Therapy to provide exercises that may help lessen the pain while incorporating proper posture and movement
- Cold/Hot treatments to alleviate inflammation and relieve pain
- Surgery (a microdiscectomy, for example, where all or part of the disc is removed) if pain persists or worsens
- Improvements With Time – most often, the pain from a herniated disc will decrease over time on its own
What Causes a Herniated Disc?
- Wear And Tear caused by an overall degeneration of the spine. As we age, the discs become dehydrated, making them drier and flatter. When this happens, the outer layer becomes more prone to breakage leading to protrusion from the inner layer.
- Lifting or Twisting with a heavy item without proper posture. Ensure that you are following the rule of thumb to lift with your knees, rather than bending at your waist and lifting with your back. Maintain a stable core when twisting or turning your torso.
- Obesity. Added body weight puts more strain on the vertebrae, and ultimately, onto the intervertebral discs.
- Genetic Susceptibility to Degenerative Disc Disease can cause deterioration to the discs as well. While you may not inherit the actual disease, you may be predisposed to it should someone, like a parent, have it.
Best Positions For Sleeping With a Herniated Disc
After you have consulted with your doctor and determined the severity of your herniated disc and which treatments are right for you, you will need to pay close attention to your sleeping positions.
- Fetal Position: For those with herniated discs, especially in the lumbar spine, sleeping in the fetal position is often recommended. Because of the pressure that is put on the nerves from the protrusion, sleeping with your spine curled can help by opening the space between your vertebrae. To get into this position, think of a baby in the womb – lay on your side and bring your knees in close to your chest, rounding your spine. Your arms can come to your chest or wherever they feel most comfortable.
- On Your Back: If you are primarily a back sleeper, making a few adjustments can help you sleep better with a herniated disc. Do this by placing a pillow that is firm under your knees while lying on your back. Similar to sleeping in the fetal position, elevating your knees relieves some of the pressure on your lower spine.
- On Your Side: Finding comfort while sleeping on your side can be achieved by placing a pillow between your knees, which will help to ensure that your hips are level while maintaining a relaxed curvature of the spine. Like sleeping in the fetal position, this position allows the vertebrae to open slightly, rather than being constricted.
- In a Recliner: For back sleepers who have a reclining chair, this may be the time to put it to good use. While it’s ideal to sleep in the comfort of your own bed, on particularly painful nights – set yourself up for an evening of reclined rest. By elevating your legs and feet, you can also achieve the relief from pressure on your spine. This can be done by placing firm pillows under your upper back and feet as well.
If you are looking for the best recliner I have scoured the internet looking for an inexpensive recliner that provides the best support for those with herniated discs and general back/neck pain. The La-Z-Boy Anderson Reclina-Rocker Recliner provides the best padded lumbar support on the market. My dad has one for his back and is able to fall asleep within minutes. Check the price on Amazon using the link above!
Positions to Avoid
If possible, you should avoid sleeping on your stomach because it does not provide adequate support for your spine. When you sleep in this position, the natural curve of your back is altered, causing more pain and problems later. If this is your usual sleeping position, while you are working through your herniated disc, try the above positions to see if they help lessen the pain.
Sleeping After Surgery
In some severe cases, your doctor may discuss the option of surgery to solve the problem. If you are one who will require surgery for your herniated disc, you won’t need to stress about how you will sleep afterward.
Your usual sleeping position will generally be acceptable after surgery. Side sleeping with a pillow between your legs or back sleeping with a pillow under your knees will give you the most comfort and continue to provide support to your spine.
When changing positions, be sure to move in one stable motion, rather than turning with your upper or lower body first and letting the rest follow behind.
Alleviating Pain From a Herniated Disc
When it comes to sleeping with a herniated disc, aside from being aware of your sleeping position, there are a few other tips that can help in your road to recovery.
- Stretching or Light Yoga – Doing an activity that keeps you mobile will prove to have several benefits. Yoga is beneficial for building core strength, which will help to limit future problems with your back. It will also help in your quest for sleep by putting you in a more relaxed, peaceful state of mind.
- Being Mindful of Your Movements When You’re Awake – To keep from making your symptoms worse and speed your recovery, it’s best to begin to be aware of your movements. Avoid sudden, jolting actions and practice care when lifting heavy items or twisting to either side.
- Maintaining Good Posture – Hunching over or sitting in positions that leave your spine curved at unnatural angles will result in various postural issues down the line. If you sit for long periods, take breaks often, and sit in an ergonomic chair.
- Invest in a Decent Mattress and Quality Pillows – Beds that are either too firm (preventing the spine from relaxing) or too soft (creating an unnatural curve that can lead to scoliosis) will not provide sufficient support. Medium-Firm mattresses will typically give the average person the correct amount of support. Check out the Amerisleep AS2 12″ Memory Foam Mattress on Amazon for the Best Mattress for both people with Herniated Discs and Back/Neck Pain. Likewise, the Snuggle-Pedic Shredded Memory Foam Pillow from Amazon provides the Best Support to allow you to keep a neutral spine which serves as an incredible tool in your fight against pain.
- Make Sleep a Priority – Be sure to get a full 6-8 hours each night and commit to a good sleep routine. By making sleep a top concern, you will be encouraging your body to have a successful healing process.