How can I reset my sleep position?
January 19, 2019 4:16 PM   Subscribe

I am entirely unable to fall asleep on my back. I can fall asleep on my side (either side) or on my front. But I have a rotator cuff issue and I think that this sleep position is making it worse, and I occasionally wake up with both my hands numb. How can I retrain my brain to fall asleep while on my back? (NB I have no back issues.)

I have tried various drugs to put myself to sleep, alcohol, just lying on my back until I fall asleep (I usually give up after a few hours -- I can fall asleep in 5 minutes on my side). I sleep naked and don't wish to change that, so no sewing tennis balls.
posted by jeather to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
No experience with this, but maybe try wedging pillows on each side of yourself for a snugger feeling. Heavier covers might help too.

Pillows are often billed as being meant for either back, side, or stomach sleepers. You could try one meant for back sleeping.
posted by lakeroon at 4:55 PM on January 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

What prevents you from falling asleep when you’re on your back?

Is it physical discomfort? Inability to drift off mentally? Both? Neither?

Have you tried the standard sleep hygiene recommendations (e.g., limit screen time close to bed, be mindful of eating too late, exercise, etc.)?

Maybe play with room variables (light, temp, breeze, ambient audio) if possible.
posted by gribbly at 5:05 PM on January 19, 2019

Try a wedge-shaped cushion under the knees and a flatter pillow than you use when side-sleeping.
posted by zadcat at 5:09 PM on January 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

I had to sleep on my back after surgery and the only thing that worked for me was a giant U body pillow (like this one) which forced me not to roll over. I tended to cross it so my head went on the top of the U and my legs were over the crossed part and I couldn't move without effort.
posted by kbuxton at 5:10 PM on January 19, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm the same and have slept with a pillow between my knees but now just double fold the bedspread under my top knee. I’ve found that doing some chin ups and pushups does a lot to lessen the discomfort of the arm I'm sleeping on but more important is the right mattress or mattress topper. Experiment with a few different pillow heights for you head as well.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:17 PM on January 19, 2019

I recently recovered from something similar. I trained myself to hug a pillow while sleeping. It worked.
PS, don't Eff with this sort of injury. See someone.
posted by k8t at 5:18 PM on January 19, 2019

Rotator cuff injuree here - I am also mostly a side sleeper - extra pillows to support shoulder, head and body including a body pillow let me protect shoulder and hands and still sleep on my side. Seriously go see someone - ideally a physical medicine or rehab medicine doc though.
posted by leslies at 5:21 PM on January 19, 2019

I'm one of those people who can't fall asleep on my back, although I usually end up turning over onto my back somewhere early during my sleep cycle. Lately, having to do with Mr. DrGail's reading light and... ahem... a dog who like to settle in with her head on my stomach, I've had no choice but to fall asleep on my back. It's easier, for me, when I turn my head fully to the side. Maybe it tricks my brain into thinking I'm actually lying on my side.

To a certain degree, though, a commitment to sleeping on your back will make a not insignificant amount of difference. Without even necessarily being aware of it, you wake up many times during the night, usually (I think) when you're changing positions. Reminding yourself that you're supposed to be sleeping on your back will induce you correct your positioning as needed. That won't fix the whole problem, of course, but it will help.
posted by DrGail at 5:37 PM on January 19, 2019

Good advice above about bracing with pillows (and also about seeing someone if you haven't already). Pillows are what I did after abdominal surgery to sleep comfortably on my back (I'm usually a side sleeper).

One side note about waking up with numb hands. When that happened to me, it turned out I had carpal tunnel issues with both wrists and would often curl my hands/wrists when I slept and exacerbate the problem. Sleeping wearing wrist braces on both hands (example of one) took care of that.
posted by gudrun at 6:05 PM on January 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

Sorry, I missed the bit about the rotator cuff injury. It might help to put some towels or foam padding under your torso to leave space for your shoulder.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:09 PM on January 19, 2019

If you are waking up with BOTH hands numb, you have a neck issue. I have a couple herniated discs in my neck that cause this, depending on which side I sleep on. My cervical herniated discs also cause a lot of alternating pain/numbness/heaviness feeling in my shoulders and down my upper arm.

I also have a rotator cuff thing going on, but my doctor thinks it may be a Throracic Outlet Syndrome thing, or may be related to my neck issues. Depending on what my MRI says. They can cause the same problems.

My solution to learning to sleep on my back is to get a good memory foam pillow. I generally only turn my head to my right when I lay down, so my left arm will not wake me up all numb and painful.
posted by sanka at 6:27 PM on January 19, 2019

I struggled with this for years and years. I would sometimes try to force the issue by just not letting myself sleep on my side. Did you know you can just not sleep for three straight days? Did you know you will be really, really unhappy by the end of that three straight days? Yeah.

I think for me a big part of the problem is that I don't breath all that well when laying on my back. Elevating my upper body so I'm sort of half sitting up helps with that, and I can sleep in that position, though it tends to be hard on my lower back. I do this mostly when I'm sick and I wouldn't be able to breath that well lying on my side, either.

I can also usually put myself to sleep on my back by listening along with a guided meditation program -- a long one, half an hour or more.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:37 PM on January 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Stumbled across this.
posted by gribbly at 8:07 PM on January 19, 2019

My skull kinda sticks out in the back, like this man, rather than being more flat like with this man.

My head shape means that a thick pillow raises my head too high and cranks my chin down into my neck, which is uncomfortable. I find it easier to sleep on my back when I have a thinner pillow, or even no pillow.

I bought the cheapest, flattest feather pillow from Ikea, I think it was this one, and it's much more comfortable.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:01 PM on January 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Throw all of your clean clothes and blankets and fluffy things into a pile on the floor. Flop down and dig yourself into cozy and can't move and don't want to. It's really about the same as pillows in places to make you comfortable or to make you unable to easily move. A hammock might work as well if you can get into it without hurting yourself.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:57 PM on January 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have back issues and sleep on my back. I have two suggestions. One, a wedge or a larger pillow under your shoulders and head so that your head is elevated. Two, as a previous answer, a wedge under your knees.

A tylenol pm also helps me.

Also, not sure if you need a cpap, but I find it easier to stay on my back when I wear mine bc it is not tight when I am on my side. If I want to breathe, I need the cpap and therefore my back.

Finally, my friend who has to sleep on his back for similar reasons as you, sleeps in a La-Z-Boy recliner
posted by AugustWest at 10:44 PM on January 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

No pillow at all and a weighted blanket have helped me, but I am by no means completely retrained.
posted by hollyholly at 2:52 AM on January 20, 2019

I had to start sleeping on my back a few years ago due to RA. It was hard at first, so what I did was lay on my side until I felt sleep creeping up, and then move to lay on my back.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:46 AM on January 20, 2019

Waking up with both hands numb isn't necessarily a neck problem; when I sleep on my side I also flex my elbows in close to my body and if I tense up (as I often do) in my sleep that's enough to make both hands numb.

For that reason, although I never retrained myself to actually default to sleeping on my back, I found sleeping on a narrow couch helped force me to stay in that position. When I say narrow, I mean such that if I tried to roll to either side I would either hit the back of the couch or fall entirely off the cushions. You could try to replicate this with some kind of pillow fort encasing you in a narrow section of bed, but I don't really mind occasional couch sleeping and this worked for me.
posted by telegraph at 9:22 AM on January 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think that it is a psychological block preventing me from sleeping on my back, as I can fall asleep quickly (usually listening to an audiobook) on my side. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to pee and figure I will just go back to sleep on my back, and wait 2 hours, then go to my side and sleep immediately.

I will try the knee pillow. I have tried flatter, fluffier, and no head pillows.

I am a very restless sleeper and often wake up having taken off the fitted sheet and the pillowcases, so this might all be moot but I am really sick of this shoulder stuff. I am also trying to sleep with my shoulders not hunched up at my ears, also to very little avail. When I fall asleep on a couch, I also only fall asleep if I am on my side.

I have spoken to a PT about my shoulder. I have an impingement, not a tear, I have exercises I do for it, but sometimes I do something that irritates it and then when I sleep it increases the irritation. And, unfortunately, I usually can't figure out that some specific thing causes pain until I've done it a few weeks in a row and finally it hurts. I have never lost any mobility in my joint, it's just mild or moderate pain (or none, it goes away too).

I will be paying more attention to my hands to figure out if this is a carpal tunnel thing, or a neck thing, or just a random slept on my hands thing (as I think when it happens I have woken up with both hands under me). I don't often wake up with them numb and I don't have other symptoms (no pain) but I will start keeping track.
posted by jeather at 10:08 AM on January 20, 2019

I am also trying to sleep with my shoulders not hunched up at my ears, also to very little avail.

I'm a lifelong side/stomach sleeper and switched to back-sleeping after developing a lot of the symptoms you're describing. I found that a curved foam pillow really helped with the shoulder problem, and also made it easier to stay on my back by dint of being uncomfortable for side-sleeping. I've been using this pillow but anything with a similar shape -- flat on the bottom, curved on top, your head in the hollow with your neck/base of skull supported on the curve peak -- seems to work much better than a traditional square or rectangular pillow of any thickness, for me.

I also got to the point where more than half an hour of lying on my side resulted in instant shoulder/neck pain which would linger for a day or more, so, uh, that was helpful motivation for retraining, as well. But try to avoid getting to that point!
posted by halation at 12:59 PM on January 20, 2019

I think that it is a psychological block preventing me from sleeping on my back

Would it help if you tried to identify further what kind of psychological block it may be?

In my case, I felt too "exposed" and vulnerable sleeping on my back.

When sleeping on my side, the front of my body feels protected (as if turned away from a possible threat to the front).

To sleep on my back, I placed a lightweight pillow on top of my chest. It is not heavy, so my breathing does not feel constricted. However, the slight pressure on my chest and abdomen is just enough to make me not feel so open and vulnerable. There was psychological safety in knowing that there was a physical barrier in front of me, and I could see and feel the tangible protection before I fell asleep.
posted by cynical pinnacle at 1:49 PM on January 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've accidentally trained myself to fall asleep on my back by using a laptop bed-tray-style stand.
posted by Zenobi at 1:52 PM on January 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I can totally relate. I am so much more psychologically comfortable sleeping on my side! But I have a neck injury that meant that side-sleeping was physically painful for many years. I have a couple thoughts.

1) Talk to a PT about best sleeping positions. Maybe they can help you get better support on your back. For my neck, I roll up a towel under my neck to support my c-spine, and fold a towel under each elbow to support my arms and not have them pull down on my neck. I also put a towel under my knees.

2) Fold your hands across your chest when you are on your back, or one on your chest and one on your stomach. I find this comforting for some reason.

3) Try a MyPillow for side sleeping. When my neck got better, my PT recommended one because they are super supportive and will stay in place. You can mash it to the exact shape that works for you. (You can try them out in person at BBB, I just got comfy on one of their demo beds for like 10 minutes so see how it felt!)

4) I have not tried a weighted blanket, but I have considered it (I also have anxiety). You can get them at Target these days.
posted by radioamy at 8:21 PM on January 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am not naturally a back sleeper, but sometimes I desire to, usually to alleviate pain or discomfort somewhere in my body. One of the things I've noticed is that I am not comfortable with my head turned to the side, and my head won't stay facing straight nose up on it's own while I'm asleep. Tucking one end of my pillow under slightly to raise it, so that my head is propped almost perfectly straight, seems to be close enough that I can fall asleep.

A determined cat sleeping on my stomach helps, too.
posted by stormyteal at 7:05 PM on March 6, 2019

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