I need to share a secret with you all about my wonderful, amazing and beautiful 7 year old daughter Sarah. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes she wakes up in the morning with a very stiff neck. Often this stiff neck then develops into a headache. Now, due to the fact that she is a 7 year old almost perfect human and the fact that she has 2 parents who are physiotherapists, these episodes of neck stiffness and headaches never last long. Still, it is not something that a health professional likes to share with the community that he is treating; now you will all know that I am not quite perfect!
Why does she get the stiff neck? Well, you see, Sarah has some rather interesting positions that she ends up sleeping in. Often I will go in to give her a final kiss goodnight and where her head should be, I find her feet! Or she’ll be sound asleep lying sideways across the bed, blissfully unaware of the struggle her Dad has to straighten her up and remake her bed. But the reason she will sometimes wake up with a stiff neck is because she likes to sleep on FOUR pillows. Yep, that’s right four. This is a running battle that I am having with her, and as those who have daughters know, it is not always the easiest thing to convince your little girl that Daddy is right.
The position that we sleep in can have a significant impact on the health of our spinal joints and the surrounding musculature. If we do not sleep in a supportive position for our spine it can lead to our joints getting irritated and inflamed and this will eventually lead to joint stiffness and pain. Not just in our neck, but throughout our entire spine from our tail bone to our skull.
Generally I recommend that my patients sleep on their side. If you have a pillow that is the correct height, this is considered the most supported position for your spine. I will also ask my patients to place a pillow between their knees to prevent the top leg from rolling forwards and rotating the spine. The correct pillow height is absolutely essential. It should always be the aim when sleeping on your side to maintain your spine in a straight line. If the pillow is too small, your head will drop down and if it is too big, your neck will be forced into a laterally flexed position. A dead give-away that your pillow is too small is when you notice that you have been shoving your hand or arm under your pillow while you are sleeping.
If you sleep on your back it is a good idea to place a pillow underneath your knees as this will tilt the pelvis and help reduce the stress on your low back. Sleeping on your tummy should be avoided as it is the position which places the most stress on our neck joints. If I find out that my patients sleep on their tummy, I get them to work very hard at breaking this habit as I know that spending 6-8 hours every day in this position is absolutely horrendous for their spinal health.
Everyone should have a good think about the positions that they sleep in and try to correct them as soon as possible. Remember, sleep positions are a habit and breaking bad habits can take some time. Persevere. It is worth it. By the way, I think my perseverance is starting to pay off; Sarah has decided that I might be right after all. She has just started sleeping on three pillows. Ah well, least it’s better than 4!