Most of us don’t think about how hard our back works all day. All the muscles in the back and the structures in the spine are what literally keeps us up and moving. It’s during sleep that the spine – and the rest of the body – can truly rest and recover from all the demands we put on it to get through our day.
This is why proper spinal alignment is critical to back health and overall wellness. There are two types of factors that impact spinal alignment during sleep. Depending on your sleep position, spinal alignment can be achieved in different ways, but it begins with a quality mattress and pillow – without a doubt, the two most important and basic parts of the sleep system for a good night’s sleep.
The Natural Factor: Sleep Position
Sleep experts say the best position for proper spinal alignment is on your back, and second to that would be on your side with your legs stretched out as opposed to curled up, which is pretty common. Either on your back or side, the right pillow will help keep your head and neck supported and your ears, shoulders and hips lined up as much as possible.
The stomach sleep position puts the most stress on the spine. While it’s recommended to train yourself to sleep in a different position, the reality is that is pretty difficult to achieve, especially if you naturally move into that favored stomach position while you’re asleep and you aren’t even aware you’re doing it. The more realistic solution is to get a low-loft pillow that gives you some support but not too much that your spine is compressed at your neck.
The Equipment Factor: Mattress and Pillow
While the question of how to sleep for proper spinal alignment is easy to answer, the question of what kind of mattress and pillow to buy for good back health is much more difficult due to individual body shape and dimensions, not to mention comfort preferences.
There is one thing every sleep expert will agree on: a sagging mattress is detrimental for the spine. Quite simply: if your mattress is old or poor quality and sags, it should be replaced. A quality mattress will provide support during its lifetime to all parts of the body. Many better quality mattress nowadays are made with zoned support, which means there is more support in areas of the body that need it most, such as the shoulders and hips.
When it comes to the head pillow, there are likely more options than you thought, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. The first decision to make here is whether you like fiber-filled or foam – basically a personal preference. There are different loft and shape options to provide optimum contouring for your sleep position. Most people are combinations sleepers, meaning they change positions during the night.
For side sleepers, there are other pillow considerations that can improve spinal alignment. A pillow placed between the knees can keep the top leg from shifting forward and causing a slight twist in the spine. And for some back sleepers, if there is a large enough arch in the lower back where it doesn’t meet the mattress, a small pillow or rolled up towel can provide just the right amount of support. An adjustable pillow could be a great solution because you can remove or add fill material until you find the level of support that’s needed.