Sleep positions or other ways to help a bad back during the night?
August 7, 2009 7:20 AM   Subscribe

For the past few months, I've been experiencing a lot of back pain during sleep and when I wake up. I've tried many solutions - sleeping on top of a bunch of blankets (to make my firm mattress softer), sleeping with a pillow between my legs (helps a little but not much, it seems), putting a towel under my hips, sleeping on my back, sleeping on my stomach, sleeping on my side. In a nutshell, I'm losing it and really could use some help. Anyone with a super-sensitive back who has found a comfortable way to sleep??? I have scoliosis, so that's one thing to keep in mind. Also, if one of the strategies I mentioned above worked for you, pleae don't hesitate to mention it - maybe you tried it in a different way than I did! THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!
posted by bross12 to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've had back pain pretty much all my adult life, which is mostly due to being seriously under-weight as a result of having Crohn's, plus a very minor scoliosis myself (less than 5%). I go through periods (which usually coincide with stressful times) where my back just sends sharp pain signals and cramps up - usually lower back and between my shoulders where, according to my previous chiropractor, I've had a chronic dislocated vertebra due to an overdeveloped muscle on my right side.

Pretty much the only two things I've found to help: a $20 microwaveable hot-pad (the kind that holds in moisture and emits steam when heated is crucial) which I use during the stressful times, and otherwise spending about 20 minutes a day doing yoga (hehe: Wii Fit yoga, that is) has REALLY kept it in check.
posted by tybeet at 7:31 AM on August 7, 2009

I've had back troubles aplenty for a 30 year old. Usually if my back hurts when I lay down, it's because of something I was doing prior to doing so. Slouching, sitting in any unusual way, sometimes even just crossed legs. I found heat to be a good treatment, and I agree about the pillow under the knees.

Above all else, see a physical therapist. Not a chiropractor. Not an herbalist. Not an acupuncturist. A physical therapist. I tried all of these methods and the one that actually works beyond a placebo effect is the PT. I know of what I speak! You should also let your primary care doctor know, esp. since you have scoliosis.

Hope you find the relief you seek.
posted by wowbobwow at 7:33 AM on August 7, 2009

To further qualify my comment: your pain during the night probably stems from how you use your back during the day, and has much less to do with your position during sleep than you think.
posted by tybeet at 7:33 AM on August 7, 2009

Not to state the obvious, bross12, but have you seen a chiropractor? Get a consultation, explain your pain, and they'll probably have not only treatments to alleviate it but also exercises to prevent it from recurring and suggestions for the healthiest sleeping positions.

(and my apologies, bross12, if I just opened the door for your question to become a debate about the legitimacy of chiropractic care. It worked for me, that's all I'm saying.)
posted by philotes at 7:34 AM on August 7, 2009

I injured my back in a fall a year ago, and I was having a terrible time sleeping afterward. What finally worked for me was a firm mattress, sleeping on my side, and sleeping with a body pillow or comforter between my knees and arms. I cuddle the comforter, I guess.

My soft mattress was killer on my back. I switched to a Denver Mattress Co. Doctor's Choice and it was like heaven. It's pretty darn firm, but not the absolute firmest I tried.
posted by ohio at 7:44 AM on August 7, 2009

I actually found that my back pain abated when I made my mattress firmer. I'd been sleeping with a featherbed on top of my high-density foam mattress, and waking up with back pain, but then spending a night at some friends' house made me see the light -- her mattress was even firmer than my unadorned one, and I woke up without back pain for the first time in a long while. I stripped the featherbed off my mattress as soon as I got home, and it's been much better.

Incidentally, I swear by high-density foam mattresses -- the firmer the better. Said friends are (she) a massage therapist and (he) someone who was born with an extra vertebrae and so had chronic back trouble for most of his life, and both swear by a firm high-density foam mattress. You don't have to necessarily get Tempurpedic as such -- I got mine from a mom-and-pop place where I live for only a couple hundred bucks, and it's working a treat. I know Ikea has high-density foam mattresses, as well.

But in general, trying to make your mattress softer may be counterintuitive, at that. Unfortunately, it's kind of a crap shoot trying to determine the specific thing which is going to help your back; but I do know that this is sounding a little familiar -- in fact, I asked about it myself about a year ago -- but making it firmer finally helped.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:45 AM on August 7, 2009

A couple of things:

I don't want to debate chiropractic care, but if you have scoliosis, I would recommend asking a specialist if your back pain could be related, and then seeing a physical therapist that specializes in scoliosis to work on strengthening the muscles on the "off" sides of the curve.

Definitely try a firmer mattress, rather than a softer one.

Do you stretch or do yoga before bed? I like to really loosen up my body before sleep and after I wake up. Stretches that work really well for loosening up my lower back (where I get the most pain):

Knee Bend
Butt Lift
Cat stretch
posted by muddgirl at 8:05 AM on August 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I solved my back and neck issues by lifting weights. Specifically, shoulder presses, bent-over rows, and deadlifts always seem to alleviate the tightness and pain in my back. I don't have a gym membership ATM, but I get the same effect by doing these exercises at home with a pair of 20 lb. dumbbells.

Obviously, lifting heavy things carries a risk of injury, so you might want to hire a personal trainer for a few sessions to teach you good form.
posted by homuncula at 8:10 AM on August 7, 2009

You may have tried this but I didn't see it in your list - but try pillows stacked under your KNEES when you lay on your back, so your lower back is "flattened" against the mattress. It really helps me.
posted by tristeza at 8:29 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would recommend seeing a physical therapist or osteopath about your back. I have roto-scoliosis that occasionally causes constant back pain that can make it hard to get to sleep (the ultimate solution for this is seeing my osteopath/PT to get straightened out again). For me the things that have really worked include light yoga stretches before bed, and a pillow between my legs, though I have on occasion (see above period cramp comments) resorted to pain relievers.

I also have to 2nd suggestions of paying attention to what you are doing during the day. How you use chairs and drive, things like that. I do find that if I can't get a workout in for a few days my back starts to complain. Core strength excercises have always been recommended to me for a way to keep my back happy longer.
posted by Feantari at 8:33 AM on August 7, 2009

Like homuncula, I find back pain is best cured by exercise. If I'm not using my back at all, sleeping is quite painful. My preferred exercise is hiking rough ground -- ideally, over river rocks, so my body moves a lot. Strengthening the trunk muscles really keeps the pain away.
posted by anadem at 8:34 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

tybeet and muddgirl beat me too it. I have nightly back pain that ranges from "I can ignore it" to "will I be able to get out of bed this time?". Stretching makes all the difference in the world - my problem is being disciplined enough to do it regularly.

tybeet: I've been thinking of buying a Wii Fit, now I have an excuse! Thanks!

Additionally, tristeza is right. If you can sleep on your back all night long a pillow behind your knees can help a lot.
posted by djeo at 8:44 AM on August 7, 2009

I have spondyloathropathy which is usually characterized by night time back pain that improves with movement. I'm not saying that's in any way related to your problem, scoliosis is probably more than enough to explain it. The recommendations for us include sleeping with a firmer mattress and no pillow and sleeping on your belly as much as possible. My understanding is that these things encourage a more natural spinal position. I like sleeping on my belly, but changing positions fairly frequently when I start to experience night time back pain helps, too. And there's always the good old get up and pace around the house for awhile until my back loosens up routine.

Since it hasn't been specifically mentioned water based exercise to take the weight off of your spine can really help. A physical therapist could help you if you're not sure what kind of exercise is best for your particular problems.

And you probably know that chiropractic is seriously counter-indicated for people with any sort of medically diagnosed spinal disease, because of the risk of serious injury if parts of you aren't exactly where the chiropractor might expect them to be.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:12 AM on August 7, 2009

Exercise solved my mild niggling back aches. My experience is similar to homoncula's; lifting free weights resolved my night-time back aches. Unfortunately, it was replaced by muscle soreness. This, however, is much more manageable and preferable. Incidentally, lifting also helped with the wrist soreness I was experiencing.

Definately talk to your doctor first, but strengthening the muscles of your lower back may help.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 9:28 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I nth the stretches, a specialist, etc.

A good friend of mine has this awesome Japanese (wool or cotton) futon with some kind of high density foam topper on a (really cool) platform bed frame. Having back pain, and finding that their bed was particularly comfortable despite my pain (I too experienced pain on the level of "Will I be able to get out of bed?") I was inspired!

I found a company in my area that manufactures an all cotton-filled futon around a super-high density core (price between $300 to $600, depending on mattress size and extras.) The mattress has a 10 year warranty so that I can take it in to have the cotton fluffed or replaced as necessary.

Been sleeping like a babe for the past 2 years. The right mattress has also helped my back issues to heal, as repetitive strain was exacerbating the problem.

Those hybrid mattresses at the Futon Shop or whatever - the quality doesn't even come close. I could not not have known what I was looking for if I had not experienced it. In truth, I think my mattress is a little more comfy than my friend's traditional Japanese set-up. Both mattress are super firm without being hard.

Buying a futon mattress is serious business. They are easy to make poorly, easy to fill with junk and sell to an unsuspecting consumer, and hard to find a good one.

Memail if you want me to hunt up the receipt for the company I used. They may ship, but more than likely you are looking for a company with a similar manufacturing process and warranty in your area.

Good luck:)
posted by jbenben at 9:37 AM on August 7, 2009

Firmer matress FTW. I've been sleeping on a futon for 12 years now and the only times I still have pains in my back are when I sleep on a soft hotel bed.
posted by cronholio at 9:56 AM on August 7, 2009

For me it was a softer mattress which runs counter to what I'd always thought. I have a deep lordosis (sp?) and a mild scoliosis and a softer mattress gives that part more support when I sleep. I moved into a new apt a year ago with no possessions and had to sleep on an air mattress. It was a revelation. I would have considered a tempurpedic mattress if I wasn't such a 'radiator' - way too hot for me.

Also think about what you're using for pillows, I jacked the double fatty pillows and sleep on one very flat one, and sometimes nothing. Much more comfortable.

That plus a lot of core exercise and stretching.
posted by poissonrouge at 10:20 AM on August 7, 2009

Firm is good. Firmer is better. I say this as a person who regularly drags all the bedclothes off of a hotel bed to sleep on the floor so I can make it into work the next day.

Also, exercise. Your doc should be able to hook you up with some PT that fits your needs.

Your back is not going to get better as you get older, so you really need to develop good back-care habits now.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:23 AM on August 7, 2009

Over the past year I woke up with horrendous upper-back pain...after much experimenting I found that just hugging a pillow while sleeping helps sooooo much. I'm a side sleeper and it's really made a big difference.

My lower-back pain went away when I switched to a futon-type of mattress setup using pure wool.
posted by Zoyashka at 12:03 PM on August 7, 2009

The Wii Fit totally helped my back. I haven't had a backache in a while, despite carrying around a 22 pound baby everywhere I go. Also, it no longer hurts my back to sit on the floor.
posted by artychoke at 12:10 PM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had really bad back pain until I got a waterbed. Been using it for over 30 years. Fill it to firm and watch that back pain disappear.
posted by torquemaniac at 1:08 PM on August 7, 2009

My solution also lies in the exercise camp, specifically lower-back exercises such as good-mornings. I had the same type of back pain you describe and relieved it with low-weight/high-rep good-mornings. (Luckily, my gym had a machine for this, but it's doable with just a bar or even a dumbbell. Watch your balance.)
posted by joaquim at 7:53 PM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

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