A quality night’s sleep is essential for optimum mental and physical functioning. But what do you do if your back or rib pain disturbs your sleep? The solution may be as simple as changing your sleeping position. Although no scholarly studies demonstrate the effectiveness of certain sleeping positions in eliminating back and rib pain, some options may be worth trying. Nonetheless, while a certain method may work for one person, it may bring entirely different results for another.
Different sleeping positions
1. Flat on your back
Lying flat on your back, also known as the supine position, has traditionally been known as the best sleeping position for most types of spinal pain, including the lower back, neck, and mid back (including ribs).
The back has several normal curves, including cervical and lumbar, referred to as the lordotic curves. Maintaining these natural curves while sleeping on your back is best by placing a pillow underneath your knees and a properly sized pillow underneath your neck. This position helps distribute weight evenly.
However, people have one issue with this sleeping position: it tends to be harder to fall asleep while on their back, as you may know from personal experience. Even though it’s been known as the best for your back, it’s not always practical for sleeping.
Nonetheless, the supine position is also a good sleeping position for rib pain since it does not place pressure on the ribs.
2. Side sleeping
As the name suggests, side sleeping is sleeping on your side. However, you want proper spine alignment by not having the knees too far forward or backward. This is best done by keeping the knees in a neutral position with a pillow in between the knees to align the hips and keep pressure off the back.
For people with rib pain, side sleeping can work well if they lie on the side opposite from the pain.
3. Sleeping in a reclined position
When it comes to sleeping in a reclined position, you can do this in an adjustable bed or a reclining chair. With the slight elevation of the upper back, there is less pressure on the lower back. A reclined position can be a good sleeping position for those with disc disease (herniated discs).
In addition, it can be good for people with rib pain since it takes pressure off the ribs and helps with breathing.
4. Fetal position
The fetal position involves lying on your side with the knees pulled in towards the chest. It's not a popular position for those with back pain, but it has been known to help.
For people with rib pain, a modified fetal position may be better in which the knees are not fully brought to the chest.
5. Stomach sleeping
Sleeping on your stomach is also known as the prone position; it can be done with the head turned right or left. Stomach sleeping is considered the worst sleeping position since it tends to arch the neck and lower back. However, raising the hips with a firm pillow can sometimes help alleviate lower back pain.
The prone position is usually not good for someone with rib pain. However, with a certain pillow underneath the affected rib, it could be a painless way to sleep.
Best sleeping position to ease the pressure on the sacroiliac joints
The sacrum is the lower part of the spine, just before the tailbone. It joins the iliac crests present on both sides, which together make up the pelvic bone. The sacroiliac (SI) joint is where the sacrum joins the iliac bones on both sides.
No scientific study describes the best sleeping position to relieve pressure on the SI joints. If you do have SI pain, you’ll have to try different sleeping positions and see which ones work best.
What kind of pillow is best?
Numerous types of pillows are made of different materials, including cotton, memory foam, feathers, latex, down, etc. The pillows can be firm or soft, depending on your needs.
There's no specific answer on which pillow works best for you — it's going to be trial and error. There are suggested brands, but every person is different.
Dealing with sleep anxiety when experiencing back or rib pain
People who have back or rib pain may find it difficult to sleep. They may eventually develop anxiety when going to bed since they may be worried about falling asleep or staying asleep. From there, a cycle can develop where lack of sleep causes anxiety and depression, further making it difficult to sleep.
There are several ways to deal with this anxiety and break the cycle, including daily exercise, sleep or pain medications, cognitive therapy, and relaxation exercises. Improving the sleep environment can also help, including a better mattress, eliminating noise, decreasing outside light, etc.
Even though back and rib pain can lead to a poor night’s sleep, changing your sleeping position and finding the right pillow may help. The traditional position of back sleeping is supposed to be best for spinal and rib pain, but not always for everyone.
The stomach sleeping position (prone) is usually the worst, but it eliminates back and rib pain in some people. Either way, it's different for everyone, and it may take some adjusting to find the best sleeping position for you.
What is the best position to sleep in for back pain?
Lying on the back (supine position) has traditionally been known as the best position for back pain, but it is not always the best position for falling asleep. This back-lying position should be combined with supportive pillows underneath the neck and knees to maintain the spine's normal curves.
What kind of pillow is good for rib pain?
There's no specific answer to this question. Different people with rib pain will respond differently to various pillows; thus, there is a large variety of available types. Some people respond best to memory foam, feather pillows, or even latex ones. You must try them out and see which works best for you.
How should I lay down when my back hurts?
When your back hurts, and you want to lie down on a bed or the floor, it should be done cautiously. Try to contract your core muscles (abdominals) and use extended arms to bear the weight of your body. Then, lower yourself slowly to lie on one side. From there, you can push with your arms to lie on your back or roll to the other side. Either way, try not to use your back muscles. See which position relieves the pain the most. Do not lie on your stomach when first experiencing back pain.
Sleeping can be difficult for people with back and rib pain. Therefore, finding the ideal sleeping position is very important.
Sleeping on your back (supine position) has traditionally been known as the best sleeping position for your spine and ribs; however, some people have trouble sleeping in this position.
Other positions have helped people with back and rib pain, including side sleeping, fetal position, and reclined sleeping like in a reclining chair.
There is no ideal pillow type or firmness; each person is different and can respond differently.
- University of Central Florida. The best sleeping position for lower back pain (and the worst).
- Sleep Foundation. Pain and sleep.