Physical Therapy Advice: Safe Sleeping

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

Bedtime can be when the body repairs itself, but only if we sleep in the right positions and on the right types of surfaces. Larry Meiller learns how best to help our body when we sleep.

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  • Sleep Position Can Both Help, Hurt A Body

    Even people who don’t get the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep a night likely spend more time in bed than any other single place. That means that how a body is positioned in bed can help or hurt it quite a bit.

    “Sleep is important and absolutely necessary for all kinds of good reasons, but for some people, sleep can get them into trouble in terms of their neck, back and sometimes even shoulder,” Bill Boissonnault said.

    Boissonnault is a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and senior physical therapist at the Spine Center Physical Therapy Clinic of the UW Hospital and Clinics. He said that people with limited range of motion are at risk of exacerbating their problems with incorrect sleep habits.

    For example, for someone with existing neck pain or stiffness, sleeping on or nearly on their stomach can be problematic. Boissonnault explained that a stomach-sleeper needs to turn their head sideways in order to breathe easily — the equivalent, he said, of looking over a shoulder for hours at a time.

    “Imagine going to bed and taping your index finger back as far as you can and then sleeping, and how painful that finger would be after a few hours. That’s how it is for some people when they end up (sleeping) on their stomach,” Boissonnault said.

    Pillows can be positioned strategically to prevent stomach-sleeping, Boissonnault said. Another strategy that he employs is to roll up a spare sheet and then tie it around the waist with the knot positioned on the stomach. If a person then rolls onto their stomach, the knot will wake them up enough to find a better position.

    “I’m not sure there’s one magical position. In terms of head and neck position, back or side is probably better. But back can be problematic for some people in terms of snoring or breathing issues.”

    Boissonnault noted that cervical pillows can help people stay in a better sleeping position. Those pillows are thicker and more dense at the bottom, near to the shoulders.

    “They’re kind of like lumbar support for your neck,” Boissonnault said. But because they are not adjustable, the design may or may not be right for an individual body. In those cases, he said, “it’s like having two arch supports in a shoe when you only need one.”

    Before investing in a cervical pillow, Boissonnault recommended simulating the effect first. He said to fold a bath towel in half, then roll it and insert it into the pillow case at the bottom edge of the pillow. That roll will fill the space between the shoulder and ear and “keep the neck in a more neutral position,” he said. If it helps, a special pillow can be purchased, or the towel can be re-rolled every few days to maintain its shape and position.

    Lori Thein Brody said she finds body pillows helpful in maintaining a good sleeping position. The physical therapist and athletic trainer with the UW Sports Medicine and Spine Center said that sleeping on the back, stomach or side “is not an all-or-none issue. There are positions in between.”

    She said a body pillow, which is a long, relatively firm bolster-type cushion, can be placed along the front of the body so that the sleeper can start on their side, but roll slightly forward as well. An arm or leg can be placed over or under the pillow as is comfortable.

    Similarly, Brody said that for people who find themselves sleeping on their backs, a body pillow can be placed behind them, so they can start on their side and drift over backwards some, but not too much.

    “That distributes the weight farther across a greater proportion of your body so your arm, leg and so on take some of that pressure,” she said.

    A pillow is an investment, but it’s nothing compared to a mattress. Brody said that she would recommend buying a mattress from a store that allows a 30-day trial.

    “Going into a store and lying down on a mattress may feel good for a few minutes and it may even feel good for a night. But what happens night after night after night? So having a guarantee where you can bring it back … makes the most sense,” Brody said.

    That having been said, there are additional ways to tailor a mattress to a body’s needs after it’s been purchased. Brody pointed out that there are additional pillow-top layers that can be added for more softness, while Boissonnault said that he has had patients put a sheet of plywood between the mattress and box spring to add support.

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Bill Boissonnault Guest
  • Lori Thein Brody Guest

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