Pain doesn’t care about your sleep, unfortunately. Especially when it comes to sciatica, pain does not just ignore your sleeping patterns, but sometimes makes it completely impossible to establish a sleeping pattern whatsoever; and we all know how important a good night’s sleep is. If something is keeping you awake for hours, chances are that is will affect other aspects of your mental and physical health, and that is no good. Therefore, in the following paragraphs, we will take a closer look at sciatica, what it is and how can you prevent it from interfering with your sleeping. Hopefully, this will help you finally get a nice, long snooze and the much-needed relief from the pain. So, let’s get started.
What is Sciatica?
In order to understand the cure, or relief for the lack of sleep caused by sciatica, it is important to understand what sciatica actually is. Sciatica is known as the painful condition caused by the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve gets irritated, and being the longest and widest nerve in the body, it causes a lot of painful trouble.
The pain usually starts at the lower back and extends all the way to the back of the thigh and further to foot or toes. As the sciatic nerve controls the lower leg muscles, sciatica almost always starts at the lower back. It also affects only one side, which actually makes the sleeping troubles much more complicated. This common condition affects almost 40% of people, at least once during their lifetime. It usually affects the older demographics, but there appear cases of 20-year olds suffering from sciatica. Nevertheless, sciatica usually appears with people in the fifth decade, and as the age increases, the pain decreases in the best-case scenarios.
What Causes Sciatica?
There is a number of conditions and factors that can lead to sciatica. However, studies have shown that a staggering 90% of cases show sciatica as being a herniated, or slipped disk. What does this mean? Let’s take a closer look; to understand the meaning od a slipped disk, it is important to understand the spinal column.
The spinal column consists of three main parts, which are as follows:
- Spinal nerves,
- Vertebra, which represents individual spinal bones that serve as a protection for the underlying, spinal nerves,
- Spinal disks, which are actually rubbery pads between the vertebra, and there are a total of 23 disks in a spinal column.
So, since the common cause of sciatica is a slipped disk, let’s focus on the spinal disks for a moment. These disks are strong and resilient; made of cartilage, they act as a pad, or even cushion between each individual spinal bone. They allow the spine to move, bend, and stay flexible. Therefore, a slipped disk can affect the flexibility of the spine, affect the protection of the spinal, or in this case, the sciatic nerve. A slipped disk causes additional, unwanted pressure on the sciatic nerve, hence the pain in the lower back and the leg.
However, a slipped disk doesn’t have to be a single cause of sciatica. Unfortunately, there are many other causative conditions, like:
- Spinal infections: these infections affect the spine completely and directly,
- Lumbar Spinal stenosis: a case of spinal cord narrowing in the lower back,
- Spinal tumor: the spinal tumor appears in the spine where it pressures and compresses the root of the sciatic nerve, which causes nerve irritation and pain,
- Spondylolisthesis: a case where a disk slips forward, over a spinal bone, or vertebra
- Cauda Equina Syndrome: a condition that appears due to damage of nerves below the end of the spinal cord; this condition can be very serious and requires immediate medical attention,
- Degenerative Disk Disease,
- Lower Back Muscle Spasms, that transfer into the buttock and back thigh area
- Pregnancy: hormones produced during pregnancy loosen and stretch ligaments, which cause back pain.
Sciatica Risk Factors
Since sciatica is a condition appearing in adult life, it is normal to see pathological changes in the nerves with age. Therefore, sciatica usually appears with people at the age of 40 to 60. Other than age, a sedentary lifestyle could also be a risk factor in the appearance of this painful condition. If you’re physically inactive, chances are that you’ll be more likely to develop sciatica, compared to people who lead a more active lifestyle. It is also important to mention that the sciatic nerve pain also appears in regards to one’s profession; if your job revolves around sitting for hours in the office, or you’re required to lift heavy loads, chances are your sciatic nerve will experience damage.
Sleeping Positions For People With Sciatica
Now that we’ve taken a closer look into what sciatica is and what causes it, we can take a look at the best, and the worst, sleeping positions for sciatica. As mentioned above, sleeping with sciatica can be extremely uncomfortable and sometimes even impossible. In regards to the levels of the pain one experiences, sciatica can be extremely hard to handle during the night time. Therefore, it is essential to realize that one’s sleeping position can have a huge impact on the quality of your sleep, as it can directly impact the way the pain runs through your lower body. A sleeping position can truly make a difference; in the following paragraphs, we will present some of the best sleeping positions, as well as the one you should completely avoid.
The Best Sleeping Positions For Sciatica
Elevating the knees
Elevating the knees has been recognized as the best sleeping position for people with sciatica. Because the sciatic nerve roots get irritated, it is important to alleviate the pressure on the lower back and the lumbar disks. This can be achieved by simply elevating your knees, and here’s how to do it properly:
- The first step is to lie on your back, keeping your whole body in contact with the bed, especially the heels and buttocks,
- Then, make sure to move your knees slightly upwards, towards the ceiling for example,
- At this point, you will have a pillow placed between your elevated knees and the bed, ensuring support. Make sure to add as many pillows as needed for your utmost comfort,
- This is the position you should retain for the rest of the night. Of course, at first you might feel uncomfortable, and it will take a few nights to get completely used to it. If this position lowers the level of sciatic pain, feel free to lie with your knees elevated during the day as well, just to make your body used to the position,
- For extra support, you can also add a small pillow underneath the curve of your lower back. This helps lower the stress on your joints and ligaments.
Sleeping on the side
Sleeping on the side is the second-best choice for sleeping positions with sciatica. This position can help you minimize the pain caused by sciatica, as well as provide relief for your lower back and spine. By sleeping on the side you will alleviate the pressure on the sciatic nerve, or a slipped disk, however, there is a catch. Here is how to sleep on the side properly:
- The first step is to pull your legs slightly towards your chest
- To alleviate the pressure on the sciatic nerve, make sure to put a pillow between your knees,
- If you still feel pain or pressure, make sure to put an extra pillow underneath your side. This will help your body stay in a natural position, and prevent any additional pressure on the lower back and the nerve, as the hips are neutral and squared.
Other sleeping recommendations
It is not just enough to choose one of the recommended sleeping positions. In order to improve your sleep while suffering from sciatica, it is important to use certain sleeping aid, for example:
- A good mattress; the mattress is the basis of a good night’s sleep, whether you suffer from the lower back pain or not. A good mattress needs to be extremely comfortable, but also somewhere in between being firm and soft. It also needs to be supportive of your hips, back, shoulders and neck, or basically each curvature on your body as they are the pressure points. Keep in mind that mattresses wear out and you need to change them after 8 to 10 years of use.
- Extra body pillows: sleeping with extra pillows can be extremely helpful for keeping the lower back pain under control during sleep. Whether you use the pillows under your knees, back or neck, they will alleviate or reduce the pressure on the sciatic nerve, spinal disks, and overall lower back. Pillows are especially important for the side-sleepers, as mentioned above, in order to keep the spine, neck, and hips neutral and aligned.
- Pillows under the head: a head pillow needs to support your head, neck, and spine, achieving a neutral body position. If a pillow is way too high, there will be pressure on your neck, as a crick will appear. However, if a pillow is too flat, the head will be dropping down too far, creating the crick again. The right pillow needs to maintain a neutral position. A good pillow should be made out of memory foam and should be customizable, depending on your posture needs.
- Bath before going to sleep: a warm bath will do wonders for your body. Before going to sleep, make sure to take a warm bath in order to alleviate sciatic pain. The reason warm water does miracles lies in the fact that it stimulates the release of endorphins and promotes relaxation of the back and leg muscles. A warm bath also helps you get into the sleepiness, needed for a good night sleep; it will get you in the mood, have your mind and body relaxed and alleviate any pain you may feel.
- Stretching before going to sleep: even though you may not be in the mood for exercising and stretching with all the pain going on, you might actually want to reconsider this idea. Mild exercising and stretching can make it easier for you to fall asleep if you’re experiencing pain in the lower back. Make sure to do some pressure up, which is really easy; the only thing you have to do is lie down and rest your elbows directly below your shoulders. Then, lift only your chest up, in the sitting position, and twist it back, turning your arm, head, and neck backward. Support the posture with the other arm, holding onto the knee. You only need to hold this posture for 30 seconds.
The Worst Sleeping Position For Sciatica
Sleeping on your stomach
If you’re looking for ways to make the back pain worse, then sleeping on your stomach might be the best one. Sleeping on the stomach is by far the worst sleeping position, regardless of whether you have sciatica or not. Even if you back is perfectly healthy, if you keep sleeping on your stomach, at some point you might develop some painful condition.
Sleeping on the stomach is bad for several reasons:
- The natural spine curvature is flattened, causing additional pressure on the sciatic nerve,
- With the head turned completely to one side, there is tension on the neck,
- The twisting of the neck can cause long-term damage to the spine
- The twisting of the neck can also cause a herniated disk
- Your own weight increases the pull on the spine, furthering the lower back issues
Sleeping on the stomach is the worst sleeping option, especially for people with back problems. However, if that is really the only way you can fall asleep, then make sure to use thin pillows that will lessen the angle between your head and the neck. Furthermore, you will need to start putting a pillow under your pelvis as this will help keep the spine in a neutral position. Not to mention, morning exercise and stretching should become indispensable in your morning routine, as it will help you get your body properly aligned again.