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Physios are often asked about the best position to sleep in, and what is the best mattress or pillow to use. Unsurprisingly, there is no one answer. However, sleep is obviously a crucial time to allow the body and mind to recuperate. Here are a couple of tips that I often advise.
In patients with low back pain, especially if it is one sided and referring into the leg, I advise them to sleep with their sore side up and a pillow/s between the knee to unload the spine. This also works very well for hip pain, particularly bursitis, as it removes the tension of the leg from the hip.
Mattresses are often a great source of contention. The main advice that I give to patients is to make sure they feel comfortable and supported and check that they are not waking up in a valley in the morning! This would indicate that it may be time for a new mattress. This is where you need to have a trade-off between feeling comfortable but also supported. When patients are deliberating between a slightly softer or firmer mattress I generally recommend the firmer mattress as they tend to soften over time anyway.
When it comes to neck pain and pillows, I advise patients to select a pillow that maintains a neutral neck position. If you are unsure of what a neutral position is then you may want to consult your physio. The pillow chosen will vary depending on whether the person is a stomach/back/side sleeper, but it will also vary based on the person’s size and natural spinal curvature.
In general, side sleepers will probably need a high profile pillow, whereas back sleepers will likely only need a low profile pillow or sometimes no pillow at all (or a rolled up towel behind the neck).
When a patient is suffering from acute neck pain and finding it difficult to find a position of comfort, I generally recommend lying on your back with a McKenzie cervical roll under the neck. This usually keeps the neck in a minimally stressful position. If the patient also has associated arm pain, then I may advise them to have a pillow under their arm to support it and take the weight of the arm off the neck.