How To Sleep Like An Adult And Not Wake Up In Pain

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Best Sleep Position
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“Ouch, my lower back…”

“Ooo, ouch, my shoulder!”

“Aaaah, my neck!”

My boyfriend and I limp our way through our morning like a criminally boring Abbott and Costello routine. Why, you might ask? Because neither of us knows how to sleep. Not really. Sure we “sleep”, technically. We lay down, close our eyes, get our REM cycle on. All the classic signs of “sleep” are there. Yet, we never wake up in the morning and stretch with deep sighs of satisfaction. Even if we do stretch, it usually ends with a wince of pain from a pinched nerve.

We just don’t know how to be comfortable in a sleep position that is also good for our bodies.

“So how do you sleep?”, you may also ask. You mean, do I sleep gracefully? Two hands beneath my cheek and a small smile dancing on my lips? Or perhaps I sleep on my back, my arms at my sides, gently holding the blanket in place across my chest, and only wake when the sound of songbirds gently stir my fluttering eyelids?

No. I sleep like friggin’ mess. On my stomach, head turned sharply to one side, and my arm above my head like I’m asking a question. Sometimes I lay on my side, head pinching the pillow between my face and shoulder, almost certainly damaging the nerve endings that later cry out in pain when I wake up— drooling, and in shock.

I often wonder how cavemen used to sleep. Did they just lie on their piles of boar fur, rest their heads on a stuffed carcass, close their eyes and were off to dreamland? Here I am, in the world’s greatest peak of luxury, with pillows and blankets and a firm mattress, and all I can do is sleep wrong.

I even joked once with my cousin— who is a doctor —about how I often wake up in the middle of the night to find one of my arms limp, like an unthawed Jimmy Dean sausage. To wake it up I shimmy my shoulders like I’m doing the cha-cha, or I hold it with my good hand and give it a hearty shake before rolling over, too tired to worry about the pins and needles.

“That’s not good,” My cousin-doctor responded, “Like, if that’s happening every night and you’re depriving your arm of blood and oxygen that’s like… Don’t do that.”

Cut to later that night and I’m lying on my back, stiff as a board, paralyzed with wide-eyed fear that I'll lose my arm for the laziest reason in history.

Needless to say I stopped bringing up my nighttime-zombie-arm.

Sleep is so important, and yet we tend to treat it like a total chore. Now near 30, I can barely function if I get less than nine hours of sleep, and I even turn down grabbing a beer if it’ll cut into my Z time.

But it’s not just the amount of hours of sleep that matters, but how well your body is resting. Judging from what I wake up to, I’m putting my body through an advanced Vinyasa class every night at around 2 a.m.

So what are some of the best and worst sleep positions? Glad you asked! I did some research:

On Your Back is #1, triple platinum, hands down, across the board, the best way to sleep. Research shows that while it’s not great for snoring, it’s pretty much amazing for everything else. It helps posture, puts virtually no pressure on your neck, shoulders or back, and BONUS: it can actually help minimize acid reflux, if your head is properly supported.

On Your Side is also a good option, it helps elongate your spine and is the best position for pregnancy. It can, however, increase wrinkles, since you’re pushing one side of your face down.

Fetal Position this one ain’t great unless you’re snoring. Curving your back in this position can wreak havoc, not to mention it limits diaphragmatic breathing, since you’re curled inward.

On Your Stomach is basically the worst thing ever, and I’ve done it for years. It creates back and neck pain, puts pressure on your muscles which leads to numbness, and is generally a very very bad idea.

How can you break your habit and try a new sleep position?

Get an orthopedic pillow. You know where they keep the canes at Rite Aid? Yeah, these bad boys are probably back there. The shape of these pillows make it pretty uncomfortable to sleep on your stomach.

Ask your S.O. for help. Enter into a ‘no tummy time’ pact with your partner, and if you happen to catch them on their stomach, you wake them up. It won’t be great for your relationship, but it’ll do wonders for your back pain.

Start on your back. If you at least start in that position, you’ve already minimized the damage sleeping on your stomach can do. Hopefully over time you’ll become more and more accustomed to the position.

Hopefully, my fellow stomach-sleepers, you too will realize that there is a better way. Because if there’s one thing that sets you right for your day, it’s setting yourself right every night. Sweet dreams!

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Tara Millette
Tara has been writing for over 6 years, from stand-up comedy, to think-pieces, to political satire and blog posts. She now writes and edits for LEADx.org, and her door is open to any interested contributors.