By Courtney Leiva
Expert review by Christine Stevens,
Sleep Coach and Owner of Sleep Solutions by Christine

While comfort helps determine your best sleep position, the effects sleep positions have on health also matter. Sitting (especially at our work desk) and standing affects your posture, but so does the way you sleep.

According to Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine Jordan Duncan, sleeping positions can affect the musculoskeletal system:

“Prolonged postural stresses, especially with joints, sustained in end-range positions, is a common reason for developing pain. This is important because we sustain positions for hours at a time when we sleep. Sleeping positions also have an effect on other health conditions, including sleep apnea and acid reflux.”

Finding the ideal sleeping position depends on a few factors, including weight, medical history (neck and back pain, snoring, sleep apnea, acid reflux, and heartburn), and the bedding products you use, according to an article by John Hopkins Medicine.

To help you find your ideal sleeping position, read through this in-depth guide to the most common sleeping positions, as well as tips on making your sleep more comfortable.

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The Most Common Sleep Position: Side Sleeping

People generally sleep in three positions—side, back, and stomach positions. According to a 2017 study in
Nature and Science of Sleep, side sleeping is the most popular, with 54 percent choosing that position,

Side sleeping includes three subtypes: fetal position, log, and yearner, says Duncan.

“In the log position, sleepers generally sleep on their side, with their arms and legs straight, while the fetal position (which is the most common side sleeping position), has the hips and knees bent,” he says. “Unlike the log and fetal positions, the yearner sleeping position consists of sleeping on the side, with the arms and legs outstretched in front.”

Side-sleeping helps ease pressure on the spine and helps to reduce acid reflux symptoms.

Duncan suggests that side-sleeping, with proper support between your knees and under your head, creates neutral hip and neck alignment. Also, sleeping on your left side places the stomach and its gastric juices lower than the esophagus. This helps prevent acid reflux, Duncan said.

However, side sleeping does have some downsides, including potentially harmful impact on the hips and shoulders.

“Side sleeping may irritate a painful shoulder or hip, especially if it is on the downside,” Duncan says. “However, simply supporting your head with a pillow, to keep your neck in proper alignment, can make the side lying more comfortable. Additionally, the use of a body pillow can also help keep a side-sleeper in more optimal alignment, and prevent them from rolling over.”

Pain Points, Your Sleep Position, and Your Mattress

Pain can arise in different body parts during sleep, and you’ll want to develop a strategy for the specific type of pain you experience. Below are some tips for more comfortable sleep.

The Best Sleeping Position for Back Pain

“Sleeping in positions that are unhealthy for the spine, such as on the stomach, or sleeping with an unsupportive mattress or pillows, can place undue stress on the spine,” says chiropractic and manager of auditing and quality for The Joint Chiropractic, Kevin Lees.

“To avoid this, try sleeping on your back or side, and using pillows strategically to add support where needed.”

The Best Sleeping Position for Hip Pain

“If you sleep on your side or your back, you should use pillows to help take off some of the pressure from your hips,” Lees says. “When sleeping on your side, place a pillow between your knees. When sleeping on your back, tuck a pillow under your knees. Though if you sleep on your stomach, find a way to switch to sleeping on your side or your back.”

The Best Sleeping Position for Shoulder Pain

“Side sleeping can sometimes put too much pressure on the shoulders with a firm mattress,” Lees says. “Hugging a body pillow can help by pulling the shoulder forward, and spreading that pressure over your rib cage. Similarly, back sleepers can also try supporting their arms with pillows, if sleeping with the arm up in this position causes pain to the shoulder area.”

Illustration of woman with back pain

The Best Sleeping Position for Neck Pain

“Neck pain usually results from stress during the day, and possibly an incorrect pillow,” says clinical sleep educator Amy Korn-Reavis. “You should consider replacing your pillow if it is old. You should also consider the thickness of the pillow, and how much support it is giving you, depending on whether you are a back or side sleeper.”

How to Sleep with Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea often remains undertreated, Korn-Reavis says. If you suffer from sleep apnea, talk to a doctor. Simply adjusting your sleeping position may not be enough to correct it.

How to Sleep During Pregnancy

Since pregnancy stresses the body, Korn-Reavis advises pregnant women to sleep on the side. That position reduces pressure on the back. Adding a wedge pillow can provide additional support later in pregnancy. “It allows the baby to move a little lower and allows the diaphragm to move,” she says.

The American Pregnancy Association also recommends adjusting your sleep position during pregnancy. These tweaks include keeping the legs and knees bent, and also putting a pillow between your legs to relieve the stress on the back. The association also advises sleeping in the supportive, “SOS” position, which requires placing a pillow under your abdomen.

Sleep: Position Critical

Comfort, of course, should inform the search for the ideal sleeping position. But medical history, body weight, and bedding products each play a role. Side and back sleeping—the two most popular positions—promote health. However, if you live with sleep apnea, consult a physician because even the most comfortable sleep position will not solve this problem.