The Healing Power of a Good Night's Sleep

08/01/2008 - Articles

The Healing Power of a Good Night's Sleep

By: Susan Aldridge, medical journalist, PhD



Good quality sleep is essential if you have back pain, yet it can be so hard to achieve. Steve Hefferon of The Healthy Back Institute offers some tips from his clinical practice. Choice of mattress and your sleeping position are key, along with preparation for bedtime, he says.


What's the most time-consuming thing you do, day in and day out, every day of your life? Eating? I hope not. Sitting in traffic? Ditto. Watching TV? Nope. It's sleeping. You spend between six and 10 hours a night in bed. That's one-third of your life. And when it comes to back pain, those are some of the most important hours in your day.

Sleep helps your body heal. It's really the only time your muscles can completely rest and recover. There are a ton of studies linking sleep with healing. They show that, among other things, human growth hormone and melatonin, both of which play a big role in tissue recovery and immunity, are produced during sleep. So if you're not getting good sleep - whether it's due to pain, anxiety, fear or whatever - you're not giving your muscles, especially your back muscles, time to rejuvenate themselves for the next day's activities.

Believe me, I know (Steve says). In my struggles with all kinds of pain over the years, I've come to understand first-hand the importance of restful sleep. In this article, I'd like to share with you what I've learned.

What's the best mattress?

Is firm better than soft? From a physiological standpoint, a more supportive mattress is better, regardless of what sleep position you prefer. But, having said that, the real answer is this: the best mattress is one that helps you sleep well and wake up without any added pain and stiffness. It's really about personal preference and what you are used to.

I have tried them all. I tried a memory foam mattress, but it was too soft. I now use a firm box spring and mattress, plus a towel under the sheets to give added support to may hips and pelvis. You read that right. I put a towel under my fitted sheet. A small blanket works well too. Here's what to do. Fold the towel or blanket in half (and in half again if it's thin). Place it under the fitted sheet - so it doesn't move around during the night - under the small of your back and spreading down toward your knees. The extra support prevents your pelvis from sagging into the mattress. It might only make a difference of a few millimeters. But that is a huge difference when it comes to preventing the added stress which comes from remaining in any sleeping position all night long.

What's the best position to sleep in?

As with the mattress you choose, the position you sleep in is based upon your personal preference or physical limitations based on pain or restrictions from your doctor because of surgery. In general, back sleeping is the most stable position for your spine and the least irritating to your muscles. Side sleeping is the next best. Stomach sleep is the least desirable if your back is not adequately supported.

I personally like a modified side-lying position, using a full-length body pillow. I sleep "hugging" the pillow with my arms and legs, which is really comfortable and takes pressure off my lower back. You should try it. Body pillows can be found at most retail bedding stores. They are not expensive and may give you an alternative sleeping position that will make a big difference in your comfort level, thus improving the quality and duration of sleep.

Why am I sore when I wake up?

Typically, those with back pain don't roll over as much as those without pain. You may even find yourself with limited movement. And because the hips are the heaviest part of the body, they sag into the mattress over time. That puts undue pressure upon the ligaments, joints and muscles of the lower spine. That is why I recommend the added support under the fitted sheet.

Think of it as like stretching the same muscles for six to eight hours straight. Would that feel good? Of course not. So it's no wonder you wake up sore. Find a way to support your body and you will minimize the irritation. I hope these tips help, and I encourage you to think of your own comfort-enhancing positions and techniques.

A few more tips

Don't drink any fluids 60 minutes before bedtime. This is so you don't have to go to the bathroom and then have trouble falling back asleep.

No physical activity for at least 45 minutes before bed. Exercise will rev your body up, making it hard to calm yourself and fall into a restful sleep.

Take 10 deep breaths as you tell yourself you are going to sleep. When you awake, you will be feeling great and ready for the new day.

As you lie in bed, ready for sleep, reflect on your day. Express gratitude and give thanks for all you have. It helps you look forward to waking up with renewed enthusiasm and the belief that tomorrow will bring you one day closer to your goals.

Dress in warm bedclothes if you are cold and cool clothes if you are hot. I have taken this to the extreme and love the results. I wear wool socks, flannel pants, a sweatshirt and a knit hat. It sounds strange, but if you can minimize the stress on the body in this case by trying to keep warm, your body will be more relaxed. Healing is always better when the body is relaxed.

Do some reading. In my work on back pain, I scour the latest resources and reference guides. So let me recommend and urge you to read the best book ever written on sleep. It is called "Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance" by Dr James B. Mass, available on for about ten dollars. That would be money well spent!


The Healthy Back Institute
S. Hefferon, Gaithersburg, MD.,

Created on: 08/01/2008
Reviewed on: 08/01/2008

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