Even though many people suffer from back problems nowadays, not as many acknowledge them as serious. For some reason, people either get accustomed to the pain or do little do deal with it. However, we can all agree that the modern lifestyle could be blamed for many back issues people experience, even at a young age. We tend to lead sedentary lifestyles, usually spending hours and hours at the office, in front of our computers, and on our phones. Sure, we might not be aware of the direct connection between the 21st-century lifestyle and its impact on our health, but it’s there. And, it is serious.
As someone who suffers from scoliosis, I can assure you that the majority of my back problems started when I reduced activity and stopped taking care of my health. When I was younger, I used to spend the whole day outside, riding a bike, hanging out with my friends, going for a run. But then, the adult life knocked at the door and it required me to start working. Now, I spend hours in my office, in front of the computer, usually in an uncomfortable position. Scoliosis was inevitable, especially because, as later found out, I already had a predisposition to developing one. Not recognizing the early onset of the condition and letting it act up was fatal for my back, and now I have to deal with the consequences. One of them is the inability to get a night of proper sleep. There are so many factors that easily aggravate my back problems, and no matter how hard I tried to fix them, there is still discomfort and pain, especially during the night time.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you have the same problem, and that is why I am here to help. After years of dealing with scoliosis, I have learned a lot about this condition and the ways I can actually fall asleep. In the following paragraphs, I will get close and personal with scoliosis, and try to help you understand this condition, and what you can do to finally get the ZZZs you deserve.
What is Scoliosis?
Before we get to the ‘sleeping part’ of this article, I think it’s important to first learn about scoliosis. This will ensure we understand the condition, its causes, risk factors, treatment options, and help us finally come up with sleeping recommendations that will fit your needs.
So, scoliosis, right? Sounds terrible, and it also kind of is. Scoliosis is a frustrating spinal deformity that revolves around the lateral curvature and rotation of the vertebra, or the individual spinal bones. This basically means that, instead of having a straight back, you have a curve, which is also referred to as the scoliotic curve. Some people don’t have as drastic of a curve in their lower back, while others may suffer from severe curvature cases. Nevertheless, the problem is the same. Scoliosis, even at different levels of severity, can cause limb length discrepancies and even cardiac and renal abnormalities.
Types of Scoliosis
To paint the picture for those who are not familiar with this condition; scoliosis, or a scoliotic curve, is oftentimes shaped like a backward C, because the spine bends to either the right of the left side. If the spine bends sideways to the right, it is called dextroscoliosis, and if it bends to the left, it is called levoscoliosis. (Fun fact, Levo in Slavic languages means left, hence the name, however, an alternative name is sinistroscoliosis, in Latin). There are also other types of scoliosis; approximately 3% of the populations suffer from idiopathic scoliosis. Idiopathic scoliosis also has three main categories:
- Infantile idiopathic scoliosis, diagnosed between birth and the age of 3; comprises about 1% of all scoliosis cases,
- Juvenile idiopathic scoliosis, diagnosed between the ages 4 and ten; comprises around 15% of all scoliosis cases
- Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, diagnosed between the ages of 10 to 18; comprises approximately 80% of all scoliosis cases in the world. The probable cause for such a staggering percentage might lie in the occurrence of rapid growth and development of the skeleton at that age.
Other, more common types of scoliosis appear with adults, due to different risks and factors. The 4 types of scoliosis, according to the spine curve, include:
- Right thoracic curve – this type of scoliosis affects the thoracic spine anatomy and the upper back. It means that the back curve bends to the right side of the upper back region, also known as the thoracic region. This type of scoliosis can cause many upper body conditions that may affect breathing and cause heart problems.
- Right lumbar curve – this type of scoliosis starts and ends in the lower back, bending to the right side.
- Right thoracolumbar curve – this type of scoliosis starts in the upper back, or the thoracic region, and ends in the lower back, or the lumbar region.
- Double major curve – this type of scoliosis involves a double curve; one is the right thoracic curve in the upper back, and the other is the left lumbar curve in the lower back. Because these curves balance each other out, this deformity is less visible.
Causes and Risk Factors
Here’s the deal; the actual cause of scoliosis is unknown, in most cases. Some factors and conditions may play a role in the development of scoliosis, but usually, those are the secondary causes; the primary one has not yet been determined. However, in order to diagnose the condition and trace it properly in an individual’s life, there are certain parameters and causes to be identified. Therefore, the possible causes of scoliosis can be either structural or nonstructural. For example, when we observe the structural causes, they are usually related to congenital abnormalities, and usually, speak for about 5% of all scoliosis cases. Structural scoliosis is also usually related to the following medical conditions:
- Neuromuscular diseases, such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy,
- Connective tissue disorder, such as Marfan syndrome,
- Malformations at birth, such as hemivertebra,
- Rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
When it comes to nonstructural scoliosis, aka functional scoliosis, the cause of the condition is not a deformity of the spine, but rather poor posture, difference in leng length or muscle spasm. Here are some other possible causative factors when it comes to scoliosis development:
- Genetic conditions: many studies have shown that scoliosis is actually a genetic disease, as the risk of developing the condition is higher in those who have family members suffering from scoliosis.
- Neuromuscular problems: scoliosis tends to develop with people who have problems with nerves, like spinal muscular atrophy; for example, sometimes the nerves that control voluntary muscles deteriorate, causing the weakness of muscles that support the spine.
- Myelomeningocele, aka Spinal Bifida: scoliosis caused by a birth defect where there is an incomplete closure of the spine.
- Limb Length Inequality: scoliosis caused by unequal lower limb length.
- Tumor: some people develop scoliosis due to abnormal growth of body tissue.
When it comes to the risk factors for scoliosis, let’s just say that genetic factors, race, medical conditions, and a sedentary lifestyle can increase the chances of developing this condition. Sometimes age is also a plausible factor, especially when it comes to children and adolescents. Girls are also at a higher risk of developing scoliosis, and of course, genetic factors can also be a risk.
However, because we tend to spend a lot of time sitting in unnatural positions, like sitting in front of a computer, more and more people develop scoliosis. As I have mentioned, the tedious hours at the office have created perfect conditions for my scoliosis development. There are, nonetheless, many studies that do not confirm this relation, but a number of them are definitely in favor of the idea that long-term exposure of the spine to an uncomfortable sitting or lying position can, in fact, cause scoliosis, or at least back pain.
Best and Worst Sleeping Positions for Scoliosis
Now that we have looked at scoliosis in more depth, it is time to see what are the best and the worst sleeping positions for people with this condition. Personally, I have struggled a lot when it comes to sleeping, as scoliosis has basically made it impossible for me to find a comfortable enough position. It certainly did not help that my preferred sleeping position is on the stomach, and we will see why that is not ideal. Bear in mind that if you’re given braces to wear and make your spine neutral and aligned, you might have some troubles finding any sleeping position comfortable, however, we’ve got you covered as well.
But, let’s start with the good ones; two sleeping positions are considered to be the best:
- The ‘savasana pose’ or sleeping on the back
Regardless of whether you’re having back problems or not, the ‘savanasa pose’, a yoga position that is also referred to as the corpse pose is a back sleeping position that is the best sleeping position for many scoliosis sufferers. This position is beneficial for your spine for numerous reasons. First of all, your whole body, as well as the pressure points are aligned and neutral. Your spine retains its natural position, and the mattress allows it to stay like that. This removes the pressure from the scoliosis-caused curvatures and alleviates discomfort.
Proper spine and body alignment is ensured by a good mattress. A good mattress is a combination of firmness, support, and the ability to adapt to the curves of your body. However, even though the mattress provides the necessary support for you back, you should benefit from using some of the additional sleeping aids available for individuals with scoliosis. For example, a cervical pillow is there to help you maintain and improve the curve in your neck. If you have scoliosis, you may have noticed that your neck is more curved than it should be. That is why a cervical pillow is essential because sleeping on a regular, flat, or too high of a pillow can further the harm on your neck and spine, rather than fixing it. If you’re still unsure how to do it, here’s how to achieve the proper back alignment:
- Choose a comfortable and supportive mattress
A good mattress should provide adequate support and a level of comfort. It would be smart to invest in a medium-to-firm mattress or a good mattress-topper that is not thicker than 3 inches; more than that would be counterproductive for the spine support. Make sure your mattress is made of materials that will make the mattress contour to your body, provide firm support, encourage air flow, and be durable. All of this affects the quality of your sleep, especially if you suffer from back pain and back issues.
- Use supportive pillows
When trying to find a comfortable sleeping position, it is essential to use supportive pillows, especially for individuals with scoliosis. Personally, pillows have helped me adjust the alignment of my body when I go to sleep, as it was difficult to solely rely on the support of the mattress. Sometimes lying only on your back can put pressure on certain curvatures, therefore, pillows provide extra support. When using the pillows, make sure to determine where exactly the scoliotic curve on your back is, and feel free to add a thin pillow underneath the shoulders or the neck. In case you don’t have enough supportive pillows, you can also roll a towel and use that instead.
- Improve your sleeping routine and environment
Studies have shown that before going to bed, it is important to prepare your body for a good night’s sleep. As someone who suffers from scoliosis, my doctor recommended that I do a set of several mild exercises before going to sleep. These exercises were usually stretching exercises that would relax my upper and lower back. They consisted of arm-reach (while lying and standing), as well as movement while planking. You should check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine. Also, relaxing routines before bed are good but vigorous exercise can make getting to sleep more difficult.
Moreover, I was advised to actually take a warm bath after exercising and try to relax even more. Warm baths help the muscles relax and the pain that you feel simply minimizes, enabling a comfortable sleep. Another thing I do is take care of my sleeping area, the bed, and sheets and the lightning in the room. The sheets should be regularly changed, and the light should be dimmed, or completely turned off. This will ensure that melatonin is being released and that you will actually fall asleep.
If you also have sleep apnea or snore, sleeping on your back can worsen your symptoms. If in doubt, check with your doctor.
- Sleeping on the side
The second sleeping position you might want to try is sleeping on the side. Even though it did not work for me, other people have said that side-sleeping has helped them enormously. With the right placement of the support pillows, side sleeping can help you achieve the proper spine alignment. For example, when you sleep on your side, you will need to bring your legs towards the chest and place a pillow between your knees. Furthermore, you will also need to place a supportive pillow underneath your back curvature and the neck. This way, your pelvis will be neutral and squared, and the spine free from pressure.
Even then, however, your body may still feel pressure and your back might produce more pain that could affect the pelvic area. When you suffer from scoliosis, it is important to raise the cervical lordosis, which is a curve in the cervical spine, and sometimes, side-sleeping can actually diminish the effect. So, I would say that side-sleeping is more of a personal choice rather than a position recommendation. In some cases, side-sleeping has enabled scoliosis patients to actually sleep well, for a longer period of time. Other patients, myself included, couldn’t really say the same. My personal issue with side-sleeping included the pressure on the stomach area, as well as lungs, as scoliosis has affected my breathing to some extent.
If you also suffer from heartburn, GERD, or acid reflux, sleeping on your left side is better than sleeping on your right where your stomach will be raised above your esophogus.
Now that we have taken a look at the best sleeping positions for scoliosis, let’s see which one is the worst:
- Sleeping on stomach
Sleeping on your stomach is the worst possible sleeping position. Regardless of whether you have a back problem or not, by sleeping on the stomach, you will definitely get one. This sleeping position is the best advertiser for a bad posture and back problems. Stomach sleeping puts enormous pressure on the upper back and the neck region, causing the neck and the cervical spine to be strained. Because you can only turn your head on one side at the time, this unnatural neck twisting can cause spinal disk damage, especially in scoliosis patients. As I have mentioned at the beginning of the article, stomach sleeping was my favorite sleeping position. But, in addition to the unhealthy posture I was keeping at work, stomach sleeping just furthered my troubles with scoliosis.
Even though this sleeping position is far from being recommended, some scoliosis patients still choose to sleep this way. If you’re one of them, at least make sure to provide enough support for your spine and neck. Make sure to place a support pillow underneath your pelvis, as well as your neck. This will help you keep at least somewhat of a healthy sleeping position.
In case you’re required to wear a brace, here are some sleeping tips for you as well:
– Make sure to keep a straight position while sleeping, despite how uncomfortable it may be at first,
– Make sure to stay on your back, rather on your side, as it will be more comfortable that way,
– Your bed should be full of supporting pillows that will help you find the most comfortable sleeping position,
– If the brace is making you sweaty and nervous, use some corn-starch powder and cotton sheets,
– Overall, try to find your best sleeping routine, which is the one that makes you feel relaxed and comfortable.
Scoliosis sucks, and if you are a fellow scoliosis patient, you should know that I understand your pain. However, I do hope that some of the recommendations mentioned in the article will actually help you alleviate the discomfort and finally get a good night’s sleep. They have definitely helped me and made my life with scoliosis much more bearable and easier. Some of the sleeping tips also work for people with no back pain, so make sure to use them even if you don’t have scoliosis. Overall, it is all about taking care of oneself and wanting the best, so make sure to make the right choices concerning your life and health.