Side sleepers of AskMefi - HOW DO?
October 8, 2021 9:10 AM   Subscribe

For a bunch of reasons, a few months ago my doctor recommended that I sleep in an elevated position and on my left side. I have a wedge pillow that works great, even for side sleeping. But... my side sleeping position is, apparently, screwing up my left shoulder. I end up with my left arm tucked up under my pillow(s) and being in that position for several hours has started to cause some impingement, with pain and some loss of range of motion. If you sleep on your side, what do you do with your arms and how do you support your head?
posted by hanov3r to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Long-time side sleeper on my left side. I just laid down to verify what I do and it's this:
Firm pillow
Sleep in slight fetal position (legs bent)
Arms bent in the space between head and legs

I think you need a firmer pillow if you're putting your arm under your pillow to support your head.
posted by jabes at 9:16 AM on October 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Agreed, I need lots of pillow loft supporting my head enough that my shoulder isn't scrunched up underneath me - to do that I have to use two pillows. I also tend to alternate putting my lower arm between my pillows or across my chest/upper stomach, i.e. like I've got my arms loosely crossed. It's not perfect; I still occasionally wake up with pins and needles in my hand. I just roll over and sleep on my other side to give that arm/shoulder a break.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:24 AM on October 8, 2021

I would agree you need more pillow under your head so that your spine is effectively straight while you're on your side. I would also be curious about whether the wedge pillow is actually propping your head/neck at an angle. You kind of want a thick and firm rectangle to have your head on when you're on your side. You could also try putting a shallow pillow above your hip or between your knees if you are struggling to be comfortable on your side. I did this during pregnancy when I was having back issues and it really helped.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 9:25 AM on October 8, 2021

Best answer: I used to sleep like you're describing until my chiropractor told me to stop. I bought a much thicker, firmer memory foam pillow (it took time to get used to, but then I started loving it and now I can't imagine life without it). And I started sleeping with my arms bent, just below the pillow. It was awkward at first but again, I got used to it.

I've now leveled up and acquired a body pillow as well, so that goes between my knees AND arms (ie I hug it). Highly recommend.
posted by yawper at 9:32 AM on October 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

I often have my arm slightly under the pillow but basically straight ahead. I got a good firm puffy memory foam pillow that keeps my head high enough on it's own.

So if you sleep with your arm bent all the way up, it'll eventually fall asleep or hurt probably. But I pretend like I'm a zombie and that left arm going forward with my palm facing toward my feet actually feels fine.

Though seeing other people talk about a body pillow, that sounds ideal.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:39 AM on October 8, 2021

I’m pregnant and so have also had to transition to side sleeping, ideally on my left side, after years of being a dedicated front sleeper. I got this specific pillow from IKEA that is working pretty well, but I think any firm shredded memory foam pillow would work as long as it’s tall enough for your particular shoulder height.
posted by MadamM at 9:49 AM on October 8, 2021

Lifelong side sleeper here, who has also had the same kind of shoulder issues in the past.

Nthing getting a much firmer pillow. The only reason I haven't replaced my pillow in like ten years is because it was the only one that the shop had in stock when I went there (and it was the display model to boot and I had to talk the clerk into even selling it to me); it was exactly as firm as I knew I needed it. I think it was a Martha Stewart brand pillow? Something like that which happened to be at that particular branch of Macy's on that particular day. But it gives my head support to the degree no other pillow has been able to do.

And also Nthing the body pillow. I noticed during the rare occasions when I've co-slept with an SO that I slept more comfortably, and realized it was because I was hugging someone and that sort of helped align everything. So now I hug a big poofy body pillow. Sometimes I even sort of position myself as if I'm attempting to sleep on my stomach, but I've got the body pillow wedged in there so it's propping me into a sideways position. Sometimes I even curve the top end of the pillow under my head if I need extra support there. (And the body pillow was an ABSOLUTE G-DAMN GODSEND when I'd first broken my knee last year and was trying to find a comfortable sleeping position while sporting a huge cast.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:50 AM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: *sound of a choir of angels* Pillow Cube Pro. I still need two old thin flattened pillows underneath it to raise it to perfectly fit into my neck-shoulder space*, but at the time I saw the commercial for this baby about a year ago I had reached a point where I was waking up with my shoulders hunched up to my ears and my hands in fists from the tension, with basically no sensation from the forearms down.

The Cube does not do the memory foam things I hate, which is where either an inch or two of material compresses down into a hard internal core that hurts my face, or my head slowly sinks all the way down through the pillow until my spine is bent like a straw and I am about to be suffocated in a dumpling of foam. The Cube is a nice platform for my head with enough give to be very gentle on my ear but no sinking.

I can't imagine wanting the smaller, non-professional size Cube, but I roll over many times in the night and I would probably fall off or miss the pillow entirely. So I am very satisfied with the dimensions of the Pro.

This is combined with a memory foam body pillow, which weighs a ton and does take some practice to roll over with, but regular body pillows compact too much between my knees and arms.

*If I was going to buy a second hundred dollar pillow, and actually I guess I'm about to do that, I might get the "thick" 6" depth size they now offer that they didn't have last year. I am only 5'10" but I'm fat and have linebacker shoulders, so my neck is substantially distanced from the mattress.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:58 AM on October 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Nthing pillow hugging.
posted by praemunire at 10:00 AM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

I sleep on my side every night but still had to confirm what I do with my lower arm! Basically I am _slightly_ rotated towards facing upwards, so the shoulder pushes forward a little bit. I tend to have my arm basically "down" parallel to my body but it could curl up without any problem.

Definitely second what everyone is saying about a firm+thick pillow - that keeps my head in line with my shoulder and means the shoulder has some room.

When I've had to prop up more (eg with a bad cold) I try to get that bend to come through my hips and body using a big wedge pillow to support everything - if I just bend the very top bit of my torso and neck, it gets pretty tight and stiff.
posted by crocomancer at 10:01 AM on October 8, 2021

Regarding shredded memory-foam pillows, I can recommend this one. I've had it for over 4 years now and it still has 90% of its original height. I do need to moosh it around about every 2 or 3 nights before settling into bed, to loosen up any compressed bits and get the loft back. (Note: I also need another flatter pillow underneath this one to get the necessary height, for my shoulders at least)
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:07 AM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

I find side-sleeping to be much more comfortable if I basically take a second pillow and hug it to my chest. That way the arm that's on top has something to rest on, and my shoulders don't slump together as much.

Any firm foam pillow will work, you don't need anything special.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:24 AM on October 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My sweetie had the same recommendation, and we now sleep on a whole slanted mattress. Big foam wedge under our mattress, so his head is elevated with no kink in the spine no matter which way he sleeps.

Currently we are both sleeping with towels instead of pillows for various neck-and-shoulder reasons. I find this ergonomic in the long run though un luxurious in the moment.
posted by clew at 10:41 AM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Any firm foam pillow will work, you don't need anything special.

Oh that is true - I did use a second pillow to hug before getting the body pillow and that worked fine too. The body pillow just has a little more bendy-flexy-configurey options as my body slides into age and decay.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:44 AM on October 8, 2021

One cannot just sleep on their side.

As a lifelong side sleeper, splaying my legs helps the most. Sleep with one pillow and put your arms out in front of your torso.
posted by parmanparman at 10:48 AM on October 8, 2021

Can also recommend the Purple Pillow as one that does not lose height. I'm built like Lyn Never, and the Purple with one height-booster is just right for me.
posted by humbug at 10:59 AM on October 8, 2021

I have a contoured cervical memory foam pillow, the kind that has a firm hump at the top and bottom to support the neck and then dips down in the middle to accommodate the head. It was a game changer for me.

Nthing pillow hugging. I use a king size pillow (longer than a regular pillow) so it goes between my knees as well, which keeps my hips in better alignment.
posted by ananci at 11:07 AM on October 8, 2021

Ikea sells a shredded memory foam pillow for much cheaper.

I'm not familiar with wedge pillows, but only recently discovered that with the "ergonomic" lumpy pillows, the tall end actually goes on the neck side and not towards the top of the head.
posted by meowzilla at 11:35 AM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’ve had fewer shoulder/neck issues after sleeping since I started doing more pushups. Strengthening shoulder, back, and neck muscles may be a factor.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:28 PM on October 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

2 squishy pillows, squished into U shape so my head is supported and shoulder is directly on the bed. Fetal position arms, wrapped around a small pillow for support (e.g. thermarest camping pillow). Orthopedic pillow between my knees to straighten hips/spine.
posted by matildaben at 12:29 PM on October 8, 2021

I either pillow hug (using not the pillow I expect my head to stay on, just a smaller one adjacent or sticking out from the main arrangement) or curl both my arms up into a little ball/chicken wings under my chin.

As a lifelong side sleeper, I think not having your head weight on your arm is likely the solution. I don't like a firm pillow tho, sounds like it works for others.
posted by love2potato at 1:07 PM on October 8, 2021

Longtime side sleeper here (on left 90% of the night). Now having to elevate due to world-class G.E.R.D.

The answer for me has been forty-seven thousand pillows. I create what my wife calls "pillow mountain" and sleep curled up against that (not quite as tightly as fetal position, but close). My whole, curled body is thus at the correct angle. A pillow between knees avoids knee pain. Another pillow (or 2) hugged against my chest support upper (right) arm to make the shoulder comfortable. The lower (left) arm is under that pillow.

The key to neck comfort is that my head rests not on a pillow, but on a wadded up sheet or thin blanket (something about the volume of a big beach towel). That is infinitely adjustable to maintain the correct height for supporting my head.

It ends up being a huge process and a bit of work. But it's the best sleep I've gotten since the
G.E.R.D. started
posted by wjm at 2:11 PM on October 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just another data point for you: long term (I'm 68) left side sleeper, one light fluffy pillow under my head, another parallel to my trunk which I drape my right arm over.
posted by forthright at 4:45 PM on October 8, 2021

I am really hesitant to recommend this product because I don't support the founder and his batshit ideas, but the MyPillow is great for side sleeping. It totally holds your head up, and holds its shape all night.
posted by radioamy at 4:47 PM on October 8, 2021

I'm surprised mattress softness has not been mentioned. I need a softer mattress when sleeping on my side than when I'm sleeping on my back. Normally your side is much less wide than your front, so to squish down the same amount you would need a softer mattress, otherwise I get exactly the problem you have. Agree the pillow matters too, but I hate the shredded foam pillows. Memory foam is also junk, as you continue to sink. Only latex or non-viscoelastic polyurethane foams are acceptable for me. Haven't tried cotton or fiberfill.
posted by flimflam at 7:22 PM on October 8, 2021

about the elevated position, try and change out the wedge pillow for 2 bed-risers (like these) . Why: the wedge is compromising your back (by bending it), while the bed risers keep your body straight.
posted by mirileh at 12:19 AM on October 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yes, you need to tilt the whole entire bed instead of using a wedge. It is a pain to set up, but then it’s done and you don’t have to think about it again. It will help a lot of the body pain issues.
posted by Bottlecap at 7:45 AM on October 9, 2021

3rding the risers if they work - my bed frame wouldn’t like them which is why we have the whole-mattress wedge. Another nice effect is that if you’re sharing a bed you’re more in the same bed than if one of you is differently propped up.
posted by clew at 11:00 AM on October 9, 2021

I only sleep on my side, or rarely in an upright position.
I often sleep on a couch. Back support allows me to get a break from fetal position, so that I can stretch my legs.
The couch is overstuffed, has comfortable arm rests, and is the right height and length. Usually I switch ends when switching sides, but sometimes I snuggle in the space between the seat back and the arm rest in an upright position.
A hassock allows the lower arm to be stretched beyond the seat when I am tired of sliding it under the pillows (two) beneath my head. A crumpled towel gives some support to the lower arm so that it is not dangling in midair.
A third pillow is sometimes used to get the right upper leg position.
I switch between cuddling something fabric (towel, blanket, sheet, etc.) or a pillow. I have stuffed a pillowcase with lap blankets or sheets to dial in the support.

Beds are not fun. I can stay in one outward facing position for a while, cuddling a pillow, but inward facing does not work for me. These days a wedge pillow and a couple of extra pillows are a must for elevation.

At the job site (we finally have a bed in one of the bedrooms) I put a combination of inflatable camping pads, closed cell foam mats, and a couple of old sleeping bags on the floor next to the wall. I use one of my bookbags (clothing storage) as the foundation and added pillows on top of that.

Seconding cuddling a cooperative spouse. Snoring is a different issue.
posted by TrishaU at 1:12 PM on October 9, 2021

I can not overstate how wonderful Lyle, my body pillow is. I'm a side sleeper, used to get shoulder pain, now, thanks to Lyle, I dont.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:22 PM on October 9, 2021

I also need something to hug, which is usually just a pulled-up corner of my duvet. On hot summer nights when I can't stand a blanket, I still lie beside one and hug it to myself.
posted by rollick at 11:36 AM on October 10, 2021

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