Sleeping is an essential function of our everyday lives. Most people never take into account the effects it may have on the health and stability of the upper back and neck. If you are in the wrong position, you could be causing trauma or injury to your upper back area.
Of the three sleeping positions that we can use at night (back, side, stomach), sleeping on your stomach is the least desirable for several different reasons. When you sleep on your stomach, you have to turn you head either to the right or to the left in order to breath. Most of us sleep for a duration of 4 hours to 10 hours a night. That means that for 4-10 hours a night, your head is turned to one side allowing the muscles on one side of the neck to shorten and the muscles on the opposite side to be lengthened.
The shortening in length on one side of the neck and the lengthening of muscles on the opposite side of the neck creates disproportionate muscle tension (DMT). When DMT kicks in, it starts to create pain in the neck and upper back. DMT not only causes pain, it restricts the ability of the joints to work in their normal state.
Another reason sleeping on your stomach is not recommended is because it causes your shoulders to fall forward into an anterior tipping situation. Basically what this means is that the shoulders drift forward due to gravity causing the pectoralis or chest muscles to tighten which then causes the shoulder blades to tip forward. The change in the muscle length at the pecs usually causes a vicious cycle of pain at the neck, shoulders and upper back.
The last reason that sleeping on your stomach is not encouraged is because if you don’t sleep with your hands by your side, you usually have your arms above your head. This position can place stress along the median and ulnar nerves in both hands creating a scenario in which your hands fall asleep or go numb. This can cause lots of problems in the future.
As an alternative, the preferred position for sleeping is on your back. The muscles and joints tend to assume their neutral position while lying on your back. Ensure you have a semi-firm pillow that maintains the natural curvature of the spine, essentially what we would refer to as the neck and upper back. By doing this, you promote stability and balance in the spine and surrounding muscle tissue.