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Sleeping on your stomach: Is it bad for you?

Strategic use of pillows can help you rest better, whatever position you sleep in. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Is stomach sleeping bad for you? In a nutshell, yes.

Stomach sleepers often insist that they are unable to sleep in any other position. But changing your sleeping position is essential, as sleeping on your stomach can be the cause of neck, back, hip and shoulder pain, and even headaches.

In order to sleep on your stomach, you must turn your head in one direction to be able to breathe, leaving your neck in constant rotation throughout the night. This causes diminished blood flow to the head and neck, which can cause headaches, kinks and pain.

If you must sleep on your stomach, there are pillows with holes in the middle that are made for stomach sleepers. These will allow your neck to stay straight while you sleep.

Another problem with stomach sleeping: In order to raise your head and shoulders enough to breathe, you need to have an arch in your lower back. This causes compression in the spine and does not allow for proper alignment of ligaments, muscles, bones and joints. If you wake up with a stiff back or sharp pain in your back or numbness and tingling in your legs or feet, stomach sleeping maybe to blame.

You can alleviate these aches by placing a pillow under your stomach. Just make sure the pillow is thick enough so that you can have a neutral spine. (This may require more than one pillow.)

Sometimes people will sleep with a leg up to the side – what I call a “three-quarter position” – and not really consider it stomach sleeping because the position allows you to turn to the side slightly. This is better than stomach sleeping because it does take the pressure off the lower back, but it can put extra pressure on the hip. To do the position correctly, you want to put several pillows under your stomach so that you are almost sleeping on your side.

Stomach sleeping and the three-quarter sleeping position also encourage you to have your arms overhead when sleeping. This puts tremendous pressure on your shoulders and nerves. Waking up with hands that are asleep or shoulders that are in pain is a very big sign that you are causing injury to yourself. Even if you can shake the pain off quickly in the morning, over time, it can become a greater issue.

So how should you sleep then?

Lying on your back is the best position to sleep, followed by lying on your side. But even if you chose the back or the side, there are things that you need to do to set yourself up with correct posture.

When lying on your back, you don’t want to lay completely flat as that will cause a slight arch in your back. Place two or three pillows underneath your legs to put your back in a neutral position. You also want to make sure that your pillow allows your head just to lay flat.

When lying on your side, consider a side sleeper pillow. Nothing fancy, but you need to fill the size of your shoulder to ensure your neck is in a neutral position. You do not want to use two pillows, as they can slide and cause you to shrug your shoulders in order to keep them in place, ending in neck and shoulder pain. Also, put a pillow between your knees to ensure a neutral spine. And if you have shoulder soreness, shoulder pain or are recovering from surgery and are a side sleeper, hugging a pillow will help by allowing increased blood flow to the shoulder.

While it is very hard to change how you sleep, it is important to start trying, even just falling asleep in the proper position but shifting throughout the night can save you and your body some unwanted aches and pain.

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