The pain was like nothing I had ever felt before. I was playing Australian tennis with some friends and had just moved over to the singles court. One of my friends hit a shot that dropped in mid-court while I was standing at the baseline. I started to move toward the ball when the stabbing sensation in the bottom of my foot stopped me in my tracks. I watched helplessly as the tennis ball fell to the ground a few feet away. I hobbled slowly to the nearby bleachers and after a few minutes realized that my tennis outing for that night was over. As painful as it was, I didn’t realize how much more painful it would become the next morning. That’s when I learned the importance of sleep positions when you’re injured.
It turns out that the position you sleep in can make a big difference in your healing process from injuries that you suffer while being active. Noting that there isn’t any one right way to sleep, The Wall Street Journal’s Sumathi Reddy reported, "But for people with certain types of pain and medical conditions, there are positions that can help keep problems from getting worse and may even alleviate them. In some cases, sleeping in the same position night after night can create pain, such as neck or shoulder problems."
So let’s look at some of the better ways to sleep if you have pain caused by an injury or another reason.
- Plantar Fasciitis - I found that when I went to sleep, I would let my feet relax, thus causing the plantar fascia to tighten up. Therefore, the first few steps when I got out of bed were excruciating. I found that if I slept in a way that would allow my foot to remain in a position that stretched the calf and the plantar fascia, I woke up with much less pain. So how can you do this? The Wall Street Journal recommends avoiding tucking in the sheets too tightly, which allows the foot to be in a more natural position. And an article on the American Family Physician website recommends the use of a night splint, which allows passive stretching of both the calf and the plantar fascia while sleeping. "Theoretically, it also allows any healing to take place while the plantar fascia is in an elongated position, thus creating less tension with the first step in the morning," authors Dr. Craig Young, Dr. Darin Rutherford and Dr. Mark Niedfeldt wrote, adding that the use of night splints have been found to help 80 percent of patients have improvement in their injury. I didn’t use a night splint, but I did come up with just about the same treatment by putting a pillow down by the footboard of my bed and then placed my foot firmly into the pillow so my foot wouldn’t relax and start pointing (and thus, causing my muscles to tighten again).
- Lower back pain - The Mayo Clinic recommends that if you sleep on your side, make sure your legs and hips aligned and flexed. In order to avoid the slight rotation of the lower spine that can happen in this position, place a pillow between your knees and thighs. People who like to sleep on their back should place a pillow under their knees to help the lower back keep its normal curve. A small, rolled towel under the small of the back can provide additional support. People who sleep on their stomachs should consider placing a pillow under their pelvis and lower abdomen in order to reduce the strain on the back. Also, using a pillow under your head is optional; make that decision based on the strain that you feel on your neck.
- Shoulder pain - Try not to sleep on the side that has your painful shoulder and, instead, try to sleep on your back. However, if you need to sleep on your side, flip over to the other side and then use a big pillow at chest height to rest your arm.
A good night’s sleep can be restorative mentally. But it’s especially important to sleep in the proper position if you’ve suffered an injury or have physical pain. Otherwise, a good night’s sleep may end up causing you more pain during the day.
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Mayo Clinic. (2011). Slide show: Sleeping positions that reduce back pain.
Reddy, S. (2013). Find the perfect sleep position. The Wall Street Journal.
Young, C. C., Rutherford, D. S., & Niedfeldt, M. W. (2001). Treatment of plantar fasciitis. American Family Physician.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.