It doesn’t take a medical expert to know that when anything is “pinched” you are in for some uncomfortable nights. A pinched nerve is precisely what it sounds like – compression has been placed on a nerve or nerve root by the tissues surrounding it. The pressure can be a result of many issues such as injury, poor posture, being overweight or pregnant, or health conditions such as arthritis and diabetes.
The tingling, numbness, or even sharp pain that radiates from a pinched nerve should be taken seriously and treated appropriately. You should consult your doctor right away if you believe you have a pinched nerve as long-term compression can have lasting consequences. Once you have been diagnosed correctly, you can begin to start the healing process, which generally only takes a few days up to a few weeks.
While your body is healing through your pinched nerve, there are a few extra precautions you can take to get the most comfort without causing more damage. You may be able to get yourself through your day, but the pain often feels much worse at night. We know you don’t want to lose sleep over it, so we have some tips that can minimize the pain and maximize your sleep.
Start with the Right Tools
Getting to sleep with a pinched nerve is as much about the bedding you use as it is about the position that you sleep in. Here are some considerations to make when it comes to figuring out how to get some rest with the appropriate tools.
Having pillows that are the correct thickness and shape is vital for keeping your body in proper alignment. With a pinched nerve, you want to ensure that your ears and shoulders are in line with each other, rather than your head falling too far (or dangling) in any direction. An unnatural curve in the spine for an extended period will exacerbate the pressure on the nerve.
For those who don’t know how you sleep because you continuously find yourself tossing and turning all over the bed, try surrounding yourself with pillows. Having little barriers will limit your movement and will bring awareness (even in your sleep) that you shouldn’t be moving too much.
When deciding which pillow to lay your head on, the following options are all great for a pinched nerve, regardless of where it is located.
- Cervical pillow – Ideally, if you can, you should invest in a cervical pillow. There are many brands which make variations of these pillows, and like with anything new, it may take time to find the right one for you. In the end, this is a perfect choice for anyone who has neck or back pain. Because the two sides of cervical pillows are different in height or thickness, cervical pillows are convenient for both back and side sleepers.
- Thin pillow – If you are a back sleeper, a cervical pillow is ideal, but you can also use a flat pillow or pad to help keep your body level. These types of cushions can double as a side sleeping tool if you simply fold it in half to give your head the height it needs.
- Cervical roll – if you don’t have a cervical pillow, or can’t seem to find the right one for you, you can also look into a cervical roll. Add the foam roll easily by inserting it into your pillowcase along with your regular pillow. What is excellent about a cervical neck roll is that you can adjust its placement to where it lays comfortably for the curve of your neck. Because we all have different neck length and shapes, if you’re struggling to find the right pillow, a roll may be the way to go. Also, since it’s removable, you don’t have to use it all the time or when you’re not in pain. The DIY option for a cervical roll is a rolled-up towel placed inside of your pillowcase. You may have to try various towel sizes to find the right thickness for you.
- Neck brace – Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sleeping with a neck brace sounds almost as uncomfortable as the pinched nerve itself. But it’s not as confining as it seems and what’s better is that you can make a DIY brace at home without spending extra money! You’ll want to use a pillowcase or thin towel that you already have and fold it in thirds the long way. Loosely wrap the cloth around your neck and secure it with something light, like tape. What this does is help to stabilize the neck while you’re sleeping, but it will also allow room for movement without the stiffness of an actual brace.
- Wedge pillow – If you are prone to injury or illness, a firm wedge pillow is an item you must have in your home. By elevating your head, neck, and upper back, you will help to alleviate some of the pressure on these areas as well as your shoulders (if you are a side sleeper). In addition to your wedge pillow, you can also add your daily pillows to create personalized elevation and comfort.
If you find that you tend to have pinched nerves often, you may want to invest in a new bed. A firm mattress is better than one that is too soft or old to prevent the body from folding in on itself. As you can imagine, a bed that sinks will put more pressure and compression on all of your joints and tissues.
When looking for a new mattress, consider one that has memory or support foam. The contour of the foam will help shape to the curve of your body, as well as weight distribution, which will prevent the folding in and compression.
Area Specific Positions for A Pinched Nerve
There are a number of locations in your body where a pinched nerve typically occurs. The main areas where you will feel pain or pain radiation are in the back, neck, arms, or other joints.
Back and Sciatica
For sciatica and other pinched nerves in your back, it is best to sleep on your side, whichever one feels more comfortable. While on your chosen side, bring the top knee in toward your chest. There is no “correct” placement of your knee, so test to see where you feel most comfortable. To prevent your spine from twisting because of the top leg, place a pillow under your knee for support.
Wrist, Arm, and Other Joints
The best position when you are struggling with a pinched nerve in your arm, wrist, or other joints is to sleep either on your back or on the non-affected side. For both positions, you want to keep the affected arm elevated with a pillow, either at your side or draped across your abdomen. For wrist pain, if instructed by your doctor, you should wear a brace, ensuring not to keep it on for too long. You want to encourage the surrounding muscles to continue to work correctly without atrophy (wasting away). As such, it’s best to wear the brace at night when you are sleeping. For leg pain, be sure to keep the affected leg elevated with a pillow under your knee.
If you have pinched a nerve in your neck, it is best to sleep on your back. Here is where your cervical pillow or cervical contour pillow and homemade neck brace will really come in handy. If you are not using a cervical pillow, be sure to use a neck brace and a thin pillow. Avoid using too many cushions under your head when you have a pinched nerve in your neck.
For each sleeping position, you will also want to surround yourself with a few support cushions. The extra padding will help prevent you from rolling while you sleep and causing more pain when you wake up.
Before You Head to Bed
Often, getting yourself ready for bed is almost as important as how you sleep. When it comes to pinched nerves, you will want to ensure that your body is as relaxed as possible to avoid furthering the injury or pain. The following steps will aid you in a night that is as comfortable as possible.
- Painkillers. Taking an over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), such as Ibuprofen or aspirin, can be incredibly helpful for the relief of pinched nerves. Be sure to take your medication at least 30 minutes before bed. Consult your doctor for a stronger prescription medication if these options don’t work.
- Warm shower for muscle relaxation. The pain from a pinched nerve can cause not only mental stress, but physical stress on your muscles as well. Taking a warm shower or soothing bath will help to relieve some of the tension you feel in the surrounding tissues and mentally relax you.
- Heat pad. Similar to a warm shower, applying heat directly to the affected area may help to ease and relax the muscles surrounding the nerve. You can use a warm cloth or heat pack in the microwave, or an electric heating pad that you can set to a timer. Leave the heat pad on for no more than 20 minutes at a time.
- Cold compress. Ice packs and cold compresses are a useful way to lower the inflammation in the area. They may also help numb some of the pain. Leave on for no more than 10-15 minutes and never apply ice directly to your skin as it may cause ice burns or frostbite.
- Relaxation techniques. Breathing techniques can be helpful to relax you mentally and physically. Additionally, you may want to speak to a physical therapist who can suggest some stretches to help prevent compression going forward.
- Get a massage. Check with your local gym or day spas for massage therapy services that cater to injuries. Not only will a massage be good for your relaxation, but your therapist will also be trained to use pressure to relieve the tension that has formed in the muscles around the nerve. It may also help to prevent future injury.
What to Avoid
It may be easy to fall into old habits if you have a preferred way of sleeping. However, depending on the severity of your pinched nerve, you may not have the option to lay the way that you typically feel most comfortable. When you are trying to heal from a pinched nerve, avoid the following when you are sleeping:
- Sleeping on your stomach. The stomach sleeping position is often a terrible way to rest in general. This is on account of it being bad for your spine alignment, due to your neck turning all the way to one side and the unnatural curve that your lower spine takes on. Sleeping on your stomach is especially discouraged if you have a pinched nerve in your back.
- Sleeping with your arms overhead. For those of us out there who feel more relaxed when we can stretch our arms up above our head, it may need to be put on hold while you’re healing. This resting position adds extra compression to your neck, upper back, and shoulders, which can further strain the tissues around the nerves. This often won’t feel good in general, but it’s important to remember to keep those arms down for a while.
- Sleeping directly on the affected shoulder. If you have a pinched nerve in your shoulder, try to sleep on the non-affected side while hugging a body pillow or on your back instead.
- Getting less sleep. While it may be painful or challenging to find the best sleep position, you want to be sure that you get a full night’s rest. If possible, go to sleep earlier than you usually would. When we are sleeping is when our muscles and tissues regenerate from injury or strain, so it is best to get as much sleep as possible, without feeling too lazy!
When All Else Fails
For the most part, pinched nerves tend to heal themselves over time. The greatest healer for a pinched nerve is rest. If you find that you are not getting enough sleep, or the nerve doesn’t seem to be healing itself, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. There are a few options that your doctor can offer that will be a more long-term solution which will help with pain and reduce swelling, including:
- Corticosteroid injections
- Oral Corticosteroids
- Surgery (in severe cases)