Let’s talk about something you probably haven’t given much
thought to: the posture you sleep in. I’ve helped many patients cure
themselves of tension headaches by getting them to modify their
When you turn in for the night, you probably don’t fall asleep in a
sitting position. Yet when most people sleep, they adopt a posture
that is almost the same as when they’re sitting in a chair. Their
heads are down and shoulders are forward; they kind of tuck
themselves up and in.
THE DANGERS OF SLEEPING IN POOR POSTURE
When you sleep like this, you’re stretching your back out and
bringing your chest, arms and neck in. As a result, you’re causing
these muscles to tighten up overnight.
Granted, you’re not putting that much of a strain on these muscles,
as they don’t have to hold up your body and support it when you’re
However, your body adapts to the position you assume at
night. So, if you sleep all curled up, the front of your body will begin
to tighten up and the back of your body will begin to stretch.
That’s just the opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish during
the day. You want to stretch the front of your body and tighten up
your back. By lying on your side and curling up, you’re tightening up
the front of your body.
If you lie on your stomach – which is no good for your lower back –
you’re head’s usually twisted to one side. While that will increase the
flexibility of one side, it’ll tighten up the other.
If you put your arm over your head while you’re sleeping on your
stomach, you’ll stretch the front of your body. Unfortunately, you’ll
also cut off circulation there because you’ll be pressing on the
collection of nerves of the brachial plexus and the brachial artery,
which supplies blood to the lower extremities.
So, sleeping on your side may be good for your back, but it’s no
good for neck, upper back, shoulders and chest.
WHY YOU SHOULD SLEEP ON YOUR BACK
What you need to do is sleep in a position that duplicates the kind
of posture that you want to have during the day: shoulders back, head
straight. Your ears should be in alignment with your shoulders, which
should be in alignment with your elbows, which should be in
alignment with your hip, knee and down through your ankle.
Obviously, the only way to maintain this positioning is on your back.
Sleeping on your back represents a neutral posture; it represents a
very straight posture that ensures that your body stays in alignment.
If you can keep your body in alignment, it won’t stretch or tighten up
while you sleep.
A lot of people wake up with stiff necks, with their chests kind of
tight and sore. Maybe their backs ache a little bit. The reason: They
sleep all curled up, which causes their neck, back and shoulder
muscles to stretch and tighten up.
WHY YOU TOSS AND TURN AT NIGHT
Do you toss and turn all night? If you do, it’s because your muscles
are tightening up as you sleep. What’s happening is you’re cutting off
blood flow to them because you sleep all curled up. As a result, they
get stretched out and tight. This causes them to become fatigued and
These spasms cause the muscles to squeeze down on blood
vessels, which deprives them of blood. Your tossing and turning is
your body’s way of repositioning itself so blood flow to these
spasmed muscles can be restored.
This is a never-ending battle for your body if you simply roll over and
curl up into a different position (which you probably do!).
If you’re sleeping on your back, however, you end this cycle.
When you sleep on your back, it’s important that you properly
support your neck.
However, by that I don’t mean using a bunch of
fluffy pillows. When you’re sleeping on your back, using too many
pillows – or pillows that are too thick – pushes your head down and
As you now know, this is a position you want to avoid.
You want your head in the opposite position – up and back.
So use a small pillow. Sometimes a cervical pillow is good. Other
times you can get away with using a small towel and kind of sticking
it in the space behind the neck. Remember, all you want to do is
support your neck – you don’t want to push it forward.
LEARNING TO SLEEP ON YOUR BACK CAN TAKE TIME
You’re probably thinking that getting used to sleeping on your back
will be a difficult habit to incorporate.
I won’t lie to you, you’re right.
However, you need to give it a try because sleeping on your back goes
a long way toward eliminating the cause of your tension headaches –
stretched out neck and shoulder muscles and constricted chest
For a lot of people, sleeping on their backs isn’t comfortable
because they have such round shoulders and tight chests. So, when
they lie on their backs, there’s too much pressure on their upper
bodies, which forces their shoulders back.
Yes, this could well be the situation for you. Sleeping on your back
can be uncomfortable, even painful at first.
However, as you begin to stretch out and assume a better posture,
your shoulders and chest will loosen up. Before long you’ll have no
trouble sleeping on your back.
And when you do, you’ll find that you’ll sleep much better and awake
far more refreshed because your muscles won’t be stiff.
CONSIDER GETTING A CERVICAL PILLOW
As I’ve said, you need to support your neck while you sleep on your
back. You’re probably wondering if I recommend a particular kind of
There is no particular kind that will serve everybody equally well.
The reason: Everybody’s physically different. Some people have big
necks; others have small necks. There is no “once size fits all”
Therefore, I suggest that you check out different pillows at
department stores, discount stores, medical supply stores, and
A lot of times you’re not allowed to return pillows you
later decide you don’t like. This may well happen to you, which, of
course, will cost you a few extra dollars.
However, you need to experiment with a few to find the right one
that will allow you to sleep properly and wake up pain-free. Consider
it an investment to your health – it is!
I’ve got one last word about the subject of sleeping on your back.
When you do, try to keep your arms straight by your side and slightly
away from your body. This will keep your chest muscles from
If you have shoulder problems, like a bad rotator cuff,
it’s even more important to sleep with your shoulders straight by your
side and slightly away from your body because if you don’t, you’ll
aggravate your problem by cutting off circulation.