Experts reveal the benefits of sleeping on your back - and the worst position for spine health

By Kristine Tarbert |

On average, we spend around one-third of our lives resting or sleeping, so sleeping in a supportive and comfortable position is a top priority for our health and wellbeing.

So when it comes to our sleeping position, is one really better than the other?

To help answer that question, we've put together some advice from sleep experts, who reveal which position is the best for your back, and which one you should avoid.

READ MORE: Sleep doctor's trick to fall asleep faster

What is the healthiest way to sleep?

Sleeping on your back is the most recommended position because the vertebrae in your back can align naturally in a neutral position without any kinks or curves. But while it may be healthier for your spine, sleeping on your right side is beneficial for your heart.

Sleeping beauty. Calm serene young woman lying on back at comfy king size bed at suite room of luxury hotel being tight asleep resting on cozy textile sheets relaxing on orthopedic mattress and pillow
Sleeping on your back is the most recommended position for your back health. (iStock)

Dr Carmel Harrington, Managing Director of 'Sleep for Health', has been studying sleep for over 20 years and said if you have a back problem you should avoid sleeping on your side.

"That is not aligning the spine or supporting the spine. So after a while you're in that position and you might feel that you have to move," she said, speaking at the launch of Fitbit's latest suite of new devices last week.

Does sleeping on your back help with back pain?

Sleep expert Kiera Pritchard from Eachnight Mattresses said sleeping on your back can help with back pain, and has multiple other health benefits.

"Back pain and sleep can exist in an ongoing cycle. If you have existing back pain, you might be getting less sleep because you are being woken by the pain, and the lack of sleep can also contribute to back pain because your body does not have enough time to restore its tissues while you sleep," she said.

A recent study found living with chronic pain can cost a person 42 minutes of sleep and acute pain episodes can cost 14 minutes of sleep.

"Everyone's body is different, and some positions may be better for you based on your height, weight, or previous injuries, but back sleeping is the most recommended position for those with back pain," she added.

Aside from helping reduce back pain, other benefits include:

  • Back sleeping can help prevent heartburn and acid reflux.
  • Dermatologists recommend back sleeping for wrinkle reduction. Back sleeping does not put any unnecessary pressure on the face while you sleep, so it will not cause creases which lead to wrinkles.
  • Back sleeping is a good choice for people with colds and allergies because it promotes drainage of the fluids in the sinuses.

What are the worst sleeping positions for lower back pain?

Despite the benefits, the great majority of people do not sleep on their backs – 74 per cent of people are side sleepers and only 16 per cent of people are stomach sleepers.

Both experts agree sleeping on your stomach is one of the worst positions for back pain, as it puts unnatural pressure on your spine. It forces your neck to rotate to either the right or left side and this position can compromise the flow of blood, lymph, and spinal fluid and may cause joint pain.

A good rest resets everything
Both experts agree sleeping on your stomach is one of the worst positions for back pain. (iStock)

"If you struggle to sleep on your back, side sleeping or sleeping in the fetal position is preferable to stomach sleeping. Side sleepers who cannot make the change to back sleeping are encouraged to use a pillow between their knees which aligns the hip flexors and neutralise the spine," Pritchard said.

Harrington agrees sleeping on your front can "get quite uncomfortable".

"There's nothing wrong with any sleep position, provided that you're comfortable. That's what the research shows, that as long as you're comfortable, that's okay," she said.

"But back sleepers be aware, you're more likely to snore in that position. So if someone is starting to tell you that you're snoring one of the easy ways to stop that is to turn on your side."

What is the best way to sleep on your back?

Only 10 per cent of people sleep on their backs and most have had to train themselves to sleep this way comfortably. Pritchard shared how you can train yourself to sleep on your back by the following process:

  1. It may feel unnatural to sleep on your back at first, so try doing something enjoyable in this position for several nights – for example, listen to your favourite album or podcast while lying comfortably on your back. These exercises will help train your mind to associate this position with comfort.
  2. Use pillow props. Many people feel vulnerable when sleeping on their backs, but you can counteract this by recruiting an array of pillows to support you. Most people feel supported with one pillow under each arm and one under the knees.
  3. Persistence. Even if you fall asleep on your back, you will likely wake up in a different position. When you wake up, just flip back to your back and try again. Eventually, you will spend most of your time sleeping on your back.
Sleep experts advise that smartphones and laptops, to name a few, be put away 45 minutes to an hour before bed.
Only 10 per cent of people sleep on their backs, with the majority being side sleepers. (iStock)

Is it better to sleep on your back without a pillow?

Back sleepers need a pillow to prevent their neck from dipping down uncomfortably. A pillow maintains neutral spinal alignment and eases discomfort. Pritchard recommended memory foam pillows as they can be moulded to fit a variety of sleep needs.

Harrington also stressed that pillows are a "really important" part of sleep.

"Don't minimise it. If you're not comfortable, go and get another one. If you're not comfortable, go get another one again. Because how we align our neck and our shoulders and our spine through sleep is really important," she said.

"There is not much research that shows that any one particular pillar is better than the other. But what is important is that you get good alignment between your shoulder and your neck so that you lie quite straight."

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