Why Does My Back Hurt When I Sleep?

back pain sleeping

Is your back pain keeping you up at night? Here’s how to adjust your position for a good night’s sleep.

Getting a full eight hours of sleep refreshes your mind and keeps your body healthy. But when your back and neck ache, you can’t get the rest you need.

A 2015 survey by the National Sleep Foundation linked pain to sleep deficits. 65% of respondents who said they experienced no pain reported good or very good quality sleep, while 36% with chronic pain admitted having difficulty resting comfortably at night. What’s more, the poor sleepers said their tiredness negatively affected their work and mood.

If you’re suffering from back pain at night, here’s what you need to know to find relief.


Back or neck pain may be caused by a structural misalignment, such as degenerative disc disease or disc herniation. When the cartilage-ringed discs between the vertebrae wear down due to age, the vertebrae rub against each other, causing neck or back discomfort. In addition, a rupture to one of these discs can result in irritation of the surrounding nerves.

Pinched nerves in the lower back can also produce a sharp pain that radiates from the lumbar region (lower back) down to the leg. Sciatica, as this condition is called, sometimes develops due to a herniated disc or spinal stenosis.

Another source of pain may be a sprain or strain in the ligaments and/or tendons of the back. People who lift heavy objects are susceptible to these types of injuries, which may cause pain, stiffness, and muscle spasms.

In addition to these conditions, your sleep position may be contributing to your back pain as well. How you position your body at night affects the alignment of the spinal column and muscles in the back and neck. Fortunately, you can make some small adjustments to ensure spinal health — and a good night’s rest.


Whether you sleep on your back, side, or stomach, make sure to properly align your spine during the night. In general, select a mattress that provides the most support and comfort — one that isn’t too soft or firm. A medium-firm mattress is said to work best for people with chronic lower back pain. Mattresses tend to lose firmness after 10 years, so if you notice your bed isn’t as supportive as it once was, purchase another.

Here are some specific tips for each sleep position:

Back Sleepers

Sleeping on your back is considered the optimal resting posture since it keeps the head, neck, and spine in alignment, thereby eliminating pressure points. To ease any stress on the pelvis and hip joints, place your legs close together, not spread apart or bent off to the side.

To further reduce stress on your back, elevate your knees with a small pillow or rolled-up towel. A pillow tucked beneath the lower spine adds another layer of support. Rest your head on a pillow that matches and bolsters the natural curve or your neck. It shouldn’t force your chin into your chest, or slant your head backward.

Side Sleepers 

People with herniated discs often find sleeping sideways curtails discomfort by moderating pressure on the spinal joints. Yet side sleepers should be sure to stabilize the hips and shoulders; one way to do this is by inserting a small pillow between your slightly bent knees. Moreover, don’t hunch your back or move your legs inward toward your chest — this unnatural curvature may cause further pain.

As for your sleep pillow, choose one thicker than for back sleepers, but one that maintains a straight neck and spine. Any pillow that rolls your chin to your chest or tilts the head further back is not recommended.

Stomach Sleepers 

Sleeping on your stomach applies maximum pressure on the neck and shoulders, and provides little support to the lower back. But you can counteract those effects with a pillow lodged under your pelvis. If you sleep on your stomach, your pillow should be flat, or you can forgo a pillow altogether. Sleeping on your stomach with your head nestled into the mattress can restrict breathing, so place a rolled-up towel under your forehead to keep your respiratory passages clear.

One benefit of sleeping on your stomach is the fact it can alleviate strain on the spinal discs. Consequently, people with herniated discs may be able to reduce their discomfort during the night by sleeping on their stomachs.


If your back pain is keeping you up at night, consult with one of our back and spine experts at New York Bone & Joint Specialists. We have experience treating a variety of back injuries and disorders with both conservative methods and arthroscopic surgery. Contactthe office today to set up an appointment.

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