We spend around 1/3 of our lives sleeping. Unsurprisingly, many health issues stem from difficulties sleeping, but sleep position can impact wellness, too. Posture during the night both affects sleep quality, possibly disrupting rest, and places stress on different parts of the body. Some studies indicate that changing sleep positions can ease certain illnesses and conditions. Additionally, some postures could aggravate already-existing issues.

Fetal Position

By far, the most popular sleep position for adults is the fetal position. According to the National Sleep Foundation, around 41% prefer this posture. Sleeping on the side and slightly curled is ideal for pregnant women because it improves circulation and prevents the uterus from pressing against other organs. Notably, though, a person who curls too tightly while sleeping may restrict their breathing. People with arthritis may notice back and knee pain after sleeping in the fetal position.

sleeping fetal position Voyagerix / Getty Images


Sleeping Sideways

Another popular position is sleeping on the side of the body with the back and legs relatively straight. Individuals experiencing acid reflux benefit greatly from sleeping on their left side. However, some experts believe that sleeping on the right side aggravates reflux conditions. Sleeping sideways also wards off back and neck pain because the position does not compress the spine, and it keeps airways open, making a person less likely to snore. However, side sleepers may be more likely to develop wrinkles, breakouts, and other skin issues because half of the face regularly presses against the pillow.

sleeping on side sideways Aja Koska / Getty Images


Lying on the Stomach

Sleeping on the stomach is one of the most problematic positions. Only around 7% of adults sleep on their stomachs because most people find it uncomfortable. While it can help with snoring, it aggravates many other issues. It becomes nearly impossible to keep the spine in a neutral position while lying like this, leading to neck and back pain. Sleeping on the stomach also places pressure on muscles and joints, causing numbness, aches, and other odd sensations.

sleeping stomach position Prostock-Studio / Getty Images


Flat on Back

Perhaps the best sleep position a person can use is lying flat on their back. Though only 8% of people sleep on their backs, it is by far the healthiest option for most people because the spine, neck, and head can rest in neutral positions. Since there is no additional pressure on those areas, they are less likely to ache. However, people who have neck pain may need to elevate their heads with several pillows. The tongue can also block the breathing tube in this position, making it a dangerous option for those with sleep apnea.


Couple Sleeping Positions

Sharing the bed with another person can dramatically affect sleeping position, sleep quality, and the relationship itself. Around 94% of couples who have some form of physical contact throughout the night report being happy with their relationship. However, couples who like to spoon may discover that they have muscle cramps or aches from their inability to move around the bed. Sleeping face to face can lower sleep quality because the pair are breathing on each other’s faces.


Combating Sleep Apnea

Many studies attempt to discover if sleep position has an effect on sleep apnea, a disorder that causes a person to regularly start and stop breathing while sleeping. A small study of male subjects found side sleeping dramatically improved oxygen saturation. A larger study found similar results, and it noted that these individuals were more likely to have issues when sleeping on their backs.

sleep apnea sideways Malandrino / Getty Images


Causing Harm

While sleeping position might help with certain issues, it can cause many others. For example, many people experience tension headaches shortly after waking because their sleeping position places strain on the neck and scalp muscles. Changing pillows or using a posture that relieves pressure on the head can prevent this. Some studies note that sleeping sideways or with an arm overhead could aggravate and delay the healing of tennis elbow and rotator cuff injuries.

neck pain injury PeopleImages / Getty Images


Sleep Position Preference

A person’s sleep position preference can change dramatically over their life. As a person ages or their body weight increases, they become more likely to sleep on their side. Some experts believe breathing issues explain this, while others suggest it has something to do with heart health. Studies show females are less likely to shift their position at night than males. Smokers tend to stay quite still throughout the night, as well. Heavier individuals have fewer body position changes at night but are more likely to move their arms, thighs, and upper backs. Together, this information suggests that a person’s preferred sleep position relies on several lifestyle and demographic factors.

older person side sleeping Goodboy Picture Company / Getty Images


Learning a New Sleep Position

For people trying to alleviate certain issues, changing their sleep position can be the most effective method. However, it is extremely difficult to retrain our bodies to new positions. Sometimes, it comes down to mattress quality. Firmer mattresses provide more tension and support more variety in sleep positions. When adopting a new posture, many people find it helpful to surround themselves with pillows to prevent them from rotating out of the new position. Others spread out their arms and legs to make it harder to subconsciously roll off of their backs.

change sleep position pillows Flashpop / Getty Images


Effects of Pillows

A person’s pillow choice can also affect their sleeping position. For example, many companies now offer pillows that provide head and neck support for specific positions. This can help individuals who prefer not to change their position but have muscle aches. Even pillow position can play a role. A pillow that is too high relative to the head may not support the natural curve of the neck. Placing a pillow between the knees can also help alleviate pressure in certain positions.

pregnant woman sleeping pillow legs Drazen_ / Getty Images


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