by Dr. Angela Walk
Health & Wellness Physician
A night of restorative sleep is an essential component to our overall health and wellness. We need adequate sleep to maintain physical energy, support our immune function, and to help our bodies heal and recover from the stresses of the day.
Many people simply aren’t getting the quality rest that their bodies need because of discomfort at night. Did you know that the position you sleep in can have a major impact on your ability to get that important sleep at night?
If your sleeping posture is not supportive it can play a role in snoring, heartburn, acid reflux, headaches, back pain, jaw problems, and even wrinkles, especially if you are sleeping on your stomach.
Stomach sleeping is the unhealthiest position you can sleep in and it can create many health concerns. Let's look into the damaging effects stomach sleeping can cause.
What Problems Can Stomach Sleeping Cause?
Since you spend over one-third of your life in bed, your sleep position plays a crucial role in supporting your overall health.
In other words, the position you sleep in can have a direct impact on your spine health, but also your health in general. And considering that the average adult spends about 6-8 hours a night sleeping in a fairly routine position, that’s quite a load to bear over time.
The best sleeping position is going to support the natural curve of your neck and spine and keep you in proper alignment. The worst sleeping positions are the ones that will put unnecessary stress on your hips, back and neck.
Let's look at how stomach sleeping can contribute to musculoskeletal conditions such as neck pain, headaches, low back pain, shoulder pain, and TMJ disorders.
Can Stomach Sleeping Cause Neck Pain?
Stomach sleeping puts an unhealthy amount of torque and rotation on the cervical spine. If your neck is rotated for an extended period of time, the joints begin to misalign and shift.
This causes stress and strain on the muscles, nerves and joints and can lead to neck pain, numbness and tingling into your arms or fingers, and headaches.
Imagine keeping your head and neck rotated for hours during an activity. I once went to see a movie and the theater was packed. We had to sit on the first row off to the side.
My neck was rotated to the right for 2 hours. I left the movie with a neck ache, and the muscles across my shoulder were on fire. OUCH!
Many stomach sleepers wrap their arms around a pillow. This can extend your neck backward, compressing your spine and nerves. This can create tingling in your arm, or your arm may fall asleep, as blood flow is constricted and nerves are compressed.
Can Stomach Sleeping Cause Headaches?
For the same reasons stomach sleeping causes neck pain, it can also contribute to chronic headaches and migraines.
The joints of the upper spine are rotated and often extended (pushed backwards) for an extended period of time and this will cause those joints to shift out of normal alignment.
This increased pressure on the spine, nerves, and muscles often leads to the spines inability to reset and return to it's normal position.
Prolonged misalignment or rotation of the first two vertebrae in the neck (C1 and C2) often lead to headaches. The tiny little muscles that attach to these vertebrae also become stressed and lead to pressure and tension at the base of your neck.
In my chiropractic practice, stomach sleeping is one of the primary causes of headaches.
Can Stomach Sleeping Cause Lower Back Pain?
Lower back pain and soreness upon rising in the morning is a telltale sign of one of two things; you’re either sleeping in the wrong position, or your mattress isn’t supporting your spine the way that it should.
While stomach sleeping, your lower spine is twisted and rotated. Many of my patients bring one leg up and this creates even more torque on the hips and lower back.
This can put pressure on the joints and discs of the lower back as well as the sciatic nerve. Many stomach sleepers have chronic low back pain. Sadly, treatment efforts often fail until they are able to stop sleeping on their stomachs.
Can Stomach Sleeping Cause Shoulder Pain?
When you sleep on your stomach, your arms have to go somewhere. Bending them and tucking them under your pillow may feel cozy, but it puts pressure on the shoulder capsule and rotator cuff and can damage the tendons and shoulder joint.
I had a patient that used to say she wished she could just take her arms off her body before she goes to bed each night so stomach sleeping would be more comfortable. Ha! She was able to change her habit of stomach sleeping and keep her arms intact.
Can Stomach Sleeping Cause Jaw Pain?
To help minimize TMJ pain, avoid sleeping on your side or your stomach. Both of these sleeping positions cause more jaw discomfort and actually make your TMJ worse.
When you sleep on your stomach or your side, it puts pressure on your jaw which pushes it out of alignment. This can create immense pain upon waking.
The stomach position also increases your risk for jaw clenching and teeth grinding. Laying on your side with a hand under your pillow can also exacerbate the symptoms of TMJ.
The best sleeping position to minimize TMJ stress is on your back.
Can Stomach Sleeping Cause Wrinkles?
The second cause of wrinkles, after sunlight and UV exposure, is sleeping. One of the least expected causes of wrinkles is simply your sleeping posture.
If you sleep on your side or on your stomach, your face is pressed into your pillow, causing your skin to fold up and form vertical wrinkles.
Since we all spend around a third of our lives asleep, these “sleep lines” get repeatedly reinforced and etched into your skin over time, like folds in leather shoes. The best way to avoid these is to sleep on your back.
Try using a special pillow case. Using pillowcases that are silk or satin help prevent facial creases, lines, and imprints while you sleep.
Can Stomach Sleeping Cause Sleep Apnea?
The position you sleep in can profoundly affect how well you breathe at night. For those suffering with sleep disorders, this can be very important.
Stomach sleeping can effect the severity of sleep apnea. Side sleeping with your back mostly straight is the best position for sleep apnea sufferers according to research.
Research shows that sleeping on the left side reduces sleep apnea even more than sleeping on the right. It creates optimal blood flow and minimizes the chances of airway obstructions which can reduce the number of apneas that you experience each night.
Back sleeping may be good for spinal alignment, and it can prevent you from waking up with pillowcase lines in your face. However, it is the worst sleeping position for individuals with sleep apnea.
It allows gravity to pull the soft tissues in the throat downward, which increases the chances that they will collapse during sleep and lead to airway blockages.
Can Stomach Sleeping Lessen Snoring?
It has been noted that stomach sleeping actually decreases snoring by shifting obstructions from your airway, however this may be the only benefit from stomach sleeping.
Sleeping on your stomach has a far greater negative impact and may create or aggravate other health conditions. Side sleeping is the best sleep position to lessen snoring. This is because side sleeping reduces the compression of your airways.
Can Stomach Sleeping Cause Acid Reflux?
Many patients complain of worsened acid reflux symptoms at night. There are several reasons for this.
When lying down, gravity no longer helps keep stomach acid down, making it easier for reflux to occur.
Decreased swallowing during sleep reduces an important force that pushes stomach acid downward.
Saliva can help neutralize stomach acid, but production of saliva is reduced during deeper stages of sleep.
Stomach sleeping will increase and aggravated acid reflux. So, I encourage my patients with reflux to sleep on your left side.
Multiple research studies have found that being on your left side is the best sleeping position for people with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Sleeping with your left side down reduces reflux and exposure of the esophagus to stomach acid.
Sleeping in other positions, including on your back, can make reflux more likely. To reduce symptoms, elevate the head of the bed by propping up the top of the bed (and not just the pillows under your head) by at least six inches.
Using a wedge pillow is one easy way to incorporate this change.
Is Stomach Sleeping Bad For Babies?
The safest sleeping position for babies is on their back. Doctors recommend parents help babies develop a habit of back sleeping to reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
SIDS is a dangerous unexplainable condition that impacts approximately 2,000 babies per year in the US. While much is still unknown about its causes, one of the key preventative measures is ensuring that babies sleep on their backs.
Is Stomach Sleeping Bad For Moms-To-Be?
It gets harder and harder to physically sleep on your stomach in the later pregnancy stages even if you wanted to. After week 16 or so, it might start to feel like you’re laying on a growing watermelon.
Plus, the extra weight around the middle of the body increases the pull on the spine and can lead to acute back pain. And pregnant women don’t need any extra reasons for back pain.
Instead of stomach sleeping, healthcare providers recommend pregnant women sleep on their left side. This position keeps pressure off the liver as well as the vein that carries blood from the legs back to the heart. It also improves blood flow to the fetus, uterus, and kidneys.
Using a pregnancy pillow to support the abdomen and cushion the legs can make side sleeping more comfortable.
What Is The Best Position To Sleep In?
The Benefits Of Back Sleeping
You may have notice a reoccurring suggestion with each of the above questions. Back sleeping is the absolute best position to sleep in. It helps keep the body and spine in a neutral position. It is also beneficial for reducing the effects of acid reflux and wrinkles.
Those who switched to back sleeping also reported significantly less back pain. To maintain optimum posture and support for your spine, I recommend placing a pillow or a bolster under your knees.
This keeps your lower back supported and also may keep you from changing positions. It has been reported that we actually awaken during the night each time we move. So, you have the opportunity to rethink your position and avoid rolling onto your stomach.
Best Pillow For Back Sleeping
It's also important to have a pillow that supports your head and neck while sleeping on your back. Your pillow needs to be the correct height as well as the proper density to keep your head and neck in alignment.
Your ear should line up with your shoulders. If the pillow is too thick your head will be shifted forward, if it's too thin, your neck will be in extension all night. This can create stress on the muscles and joints of the cervical spine.
I recommend a supportive memory foam pillow that contours to the head and neck and has the dip in the middle to help maintain the banana shape, or forward curve of our cervical spine.
Side Sleeping Tips
Side Sleeping is not the most ideal position to sleep, yet it is better than stomach sleeping. Side sleeping can often create shoulder pain, neck pain, and jaw discomfort due to the prolonged stress on these areas.
There are, however, a couple of positive outcomes from side sleeping in that it can lessen acid reflux, heartburn and reduces snoring.
If you struggle to sleep on your back, here are a few tips to make side sleeping less stressful on your spine and shoulders.
I recommend placing a pillow between your knees. This keeps your hips in a neutral position.
Avoid rolling forward in the fetal position as this shifts your head and neck forward and flattens out your lumbar spine.
Avoid tucking your chin. Keep your chin level.
Keep you body in a natural posture. Imagine holding an upright standing posture with your ear in line with your shoulder, shoulders back and chin level. Now, replicate that posture while sleeping with a slight bend in your knees.
Some find it challenging to remain in a side sleeping position and tend to roll over on your stomach. If this is you, try hugging a memory foam body pillow. If you attempt to roll over, this large pillow will awaken you and keep you from moving.
Best Pillow For Side Sleeping
I am asked about my recommendation for the best pillow all day long. For those who sleep primarily on their side, I recommend a thicker pillow.
When you are side lying, the pillow should hold your head at a 90 degree angle from your shoulder. The broader your shoulders, the thicker pillow you will need.
Most people have pillows that are too thin and unsupportive. A more dense material such as memory foam is ideal. This is the pillow I recommend for my side sleeping patients.
Avoid Sleeping In The Fetal Position
Be sure to avoid rolling forward into the fetal position. This shifts your head and neck into an awkward forward head posture and flattens out your lower back.
Also, when your knees are pulled upward toward you stomach, this shortens your hip flexors and leads to further mechanical issues.
Tucking your chin down when sleeping in a fetal position also puts stress on your cervical spine and straightens our natural forward curve. Your chin should be kept at a level position.
How Do I Stop Sleeping On My Stomach
Changing how you sleep can be difficult. Especially for those who are stomach sleepers. Many people have slept on their stomachs their entire lives.
It can be an incredibly difficult habit to break. There are a few techniques and suggestions that may help to make the switch successful.
Start off with sleeping on your back every time you lie down. It may help to use a long, cylindrical body pillow to train your body to stay in your new preferred sleep position.
Placing other pillows and extra blankets on either side of your body can also help prevent yourself from being able to easily roll over onto your stomach.
Tell yourself or ask a partner to nudge you if he or she sees you sleeping on your stomach. Gradually, you will get into the habit of back sleeping through the night.
Be patient with yourself. Be aware of your position each time you are awakened at night, and reset to your back if you find yourself drifting back into the prone position.
How To Improve Sleeping Habits Naturally
We all know how important sleep is for our overall health. If you are struggling with getting better/restorative sleep, I recommend only natural remedies.
If you are among the 16 percent of Americans who prefer stomach sleeping, it can be very difficult to change a habit that you have had for years
Adjusting your sleeping position can be a game-changer. Like all new things, it may take some trial and error to get comfy, but better quality sleep and less pain is worth it.
Best Of Health,
Dr. Angela's BEST RECOMMENDATIONS
Wedge pillow for acid reflux sufferers
Silk pillow case to lessen wrinkles
Bolster for under the knees while back sleeping
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical
Hi, I'm Dr. Angela Walk
I have been involved in the health and wellness industry for over 25 years as a health & wellness physician and foot health coach.
I have written extensively for health publications and I am keenly aware of trends and new developments in natural health.
I embrace an active lifestyle combining diet, exercise and healthy choices. My goal is to inform my readers of natural options available to them in hopes of improving their health and quality of life.