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Adrienne Dellwo

Chronic Pain & Sleep Position: Do You Need a Change?

By July 29, 2013

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Does the position you sleep in make your pain worse? I've always been a side sleeper, but not anymore.

I have chronic pain from fibromyalgia and about half a dozen other conditions, including a type of autoimmune arthritis (spondyloarthropathy.) For the past several months, I've had hip pain that's cost me untold hours of sleep, restricted my productivity, and even had me carrying a cane everywhere in case I needed it.

I've tried stretching it, strengthening it, massaging it, babying it, etc., and it just kept getting worse. Even on the days when it wasn't too bad, it would start killing me as soon as I laid down to sleep.

Then we went on vacation and I spent a few nights in a strange bed. Oddly enough, I had less hip pain, and it didn't hurt more when I laid down. I thought I might need a different mattress, but I have a fairly new memory foam one that feels good otherwise - it doesn't aggravate the allodynia-prone area around my waist, and it doesn't bother my bad shoulder. My husband has chronic back problems, and he's really happy with the bed.

Then, one day I was rubbing the kinks out of my neck and shoulders and cursing myself for rolling onto my back so often at night. My thick, firm, side-sleeper pillow is really not meant for laying on your back! I said something about my neck hurting worse than my hip, then realized my hip actually was doing pretty well.

And then I had a moment of realization - the bed was hurting my hip, and I was rolling onto my back more and more. Huh. Maybe, in my sleep, I was finding a position that felt better.

For the past few nights, I've tossed my side-sleeper pillow and body pillow off the bed, rolled up a blanket for neck support, and spent the whole night on my back. My hip is so much better that went to the mall today, after the grocery store, and left my cane in my purse! Even after all of that, right now I'd rate my hip as moderately uncomfortable. It's better than it's been in months.

I know that with fibromyalgia, sometimes whatever part is against the mattress is going to be in the most pain. In that case, you just have to change positions every now and then to alleviate it, and start the pain growing somewhere else. But if you're like me and you have structurally impaired body parts that consistently hurt when you lay down, or in the morning, it might be worth exploring different sleep positions.

Does laying down escalate your pain? Have you found relief by trying a different position? What helps you get comfortable in bed? Leave your comments below!

Learn more or join the conversation!


Photo Adam Gault

July 29, 2013 at 12:20 pm
(1) Nancy A. says:

With my fibromyalgia, I used to have shoulder pain when I slept on my sides, and back pain if I slept on my back with a regular pillow. I can’t sleep on my stomach at all.

I also suffer from acid reflux (GERD), so I finally bought a bed wedge pillow a few years ago, and I’m so much more comfortable when I’m sleeping. You can also put the pillow in an upright position when you’re watching TV or reading in bed. You can buy this type of pillow online.

It took some trial and error getting the dimensions right — when my head was too high, it was uncomfortable, so it shouldn’t be higher than about 7-8 inches like my pillow, which is 7″ x 23″ x 23″.

Definitely look into this, Adrienne. Do a search online for a “bed wedge pillow” and you’ll find lots of stores where you can buy one. It takes a little getting used to but in a week or two, I think you’ll love it.

July 30, 2013 at 11:31 am
(2) Scoliosis Hurts says:

with 2 severe curves of the spine, lower lumbar and upper, i stand straight and am in pain always. 24hrs, 7 days, 365 days. I sit here and type and pain .. even with 180mg Oxycodone pain medication daily (down from 300mg …I functioned 95% normal then, hiked, swam, perfect and zero side effects) I find I have not been sleeping well for the past several years, and having slept well 7-8hours all my life when I hit mid 30′s the spine gave out messages. I have a top end mattress, ideal for this condition, and still, prefer to and do sleep better on my old dented raggedy sofa than my high end super pricey mattress. I cannot sleep and have not slept nor relaxed on my back. my ribcage feels as if it will open and solar plexus explode. No chance. None. The only side i can sleep or rest is on my left side. the right, due to the curvatures is good says my chiro doc but nope. left side, ideally a small soft pillow in between my knees and knees bent slightly. Pillows also count. try a few different ones, I prefer large soft feather free pillows. 2 of them. We are all different.

July 31, 2013 at 12:37 am
(3) Sandy Thornton says:

I have no problem getting to sleep but toss all night dreaming of pain so right now sleep is without benefit to me. My L3-5 nerve block has worn off. My feet are so hypersensitive that toes even touching floor is like having foot in furnace. I have modified my exercise regimen whereby I go to exercise room and ride bicycle 4 miles per day while watching TV. I need to get all my bottom teeth extracted for dentures per dentist on 6/29 and he would call to advise me of cost. He states my gums and bone structure have deteriorated so much that I difficulty. It is a good thing I am not a depressed individual but believe I have reached my quota of negative news.

July 31, 2013 at 2:30 am
(4) Pamela says:

In addition to (or because of) my Fibro, Chronic Pelvic Pain and Chronic Fatigue, I have severe sleep issues including insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. I don’t have a CPAP machine (yet) but I’m hoping it will help when I do get one.

For now, it’s a matter of tossing and turning to try and find a position that doesn’t hurt. If my hips are comfortable, then my neck is not. If my neck is comfortable, my knees will ache. If my knees stop aching, it’s because my lower back is screaming at me. And then, I just get up so I don’t disturb my husband any more than I already have. I’ll lay on the couch, or more often, lay down in my recliner. Sometimes, I can only manage to “rest” – not actually get restorative sleep.

I struggle with sleep every single day. I live in pain every single day. I manage to struggle through, but oh, what I would give for a good night where I sleep through it and wake up refreshed. I’ve yet to find a position that will allow this to happen, but my motto is “there is always hope”. I haven’t given up yet!!

August 1, 2013 at 6:42 am
(5) Patricia Gillian Campbell-symons says:

I suffer pain on a daily basis as I suffer from osteoarthritis of the spine and all weight.bearing joints plus now have it in my elbows and hands plus I have Crumbling discs in my neck and Lumber region but I try to do my normal housework and a little gardening most days of the week but its a slow process with lots of sit downs in between but I get it done and I am proud that I can do it,there are days that are bad but I also have good days which out weigh the bad days and I will try to do a little bit each day for as Long as I can there are those those much worse off than me and I thank god for every good day I have

August 1, 2013 at 6:47 am
(6) Patricia Gillian Campbell-symons says:

I suffer pain on a daily basis as I suffer from osteoarthritis of the spine and all weight.bearing joints plus now have it in my elbows and hands plus I have Crumbling discs in my neck and Lumber region but I try to do my normal housework and a little gardening most days of the week but its a slow process with lots of sit downs in between but I get it done and I am proud that I can do it,there are days that are bad but I also have good days which out weigh the bad days and I will try to do a little bit each day for as Long as I can there are those those much worse off than me and I thank god for every good day I have

August 1, 2013 at 7:00 am
(7) Patricia Gillian Campbell-symons says:

More research should be done into osteoarthritis I have seen a lot about rheumatoid arthritis but not so much on osteo arthritis

August 2, 2013 at 3:58 pm
(8) Faye Erickson says:

I have had to sleep in a recliner for about 15 years. I actually get a better quality of sleep. I also need the arm support so my large joints don’t hurt from “hanging”. I, too, have osteoarthritis in my back and degenerative disc disease, along with f.m. & chronic fatigue. When I travel overnight, I try to get a hotel room with a recliner or bring a reclining lawn chair with me to sleep on. Be sure to use a blanket UNDER your body in a lawn chair, or you will feel cold on your back all night and wake up sore from tight muscles. I don’t use sheets, just washable blankets to cover myself and a comfortable small pillow.

August 2, 2013 at 4:13 pm
(9) Marie says:

I found that a Mediflow water base pillow helps with neck pain. It works well for side or back sleeping. I also have an electric adjustable single bed that I would recommend for changing positions. I usually keep the head of the bed up because of GERD and sinus problems. You can adjust the leg height too for what is hurting. I find this more comfortable than a recliner. (These can be bought used at a very reasonable price.)

August 2, 2013 at 5:00 pm
(10) kathleen says:

Hello Sister Faye,
I also have slept in a recliner for about 15 yrs., been ill for 18 yrs.
I have fibro and deg disc disease in my neck and severe lumbar disc
disease, etc. etc. I can’t afford to have my own place, so I have been renting a room at other people’s houses forever. Since I live basically in
one room, it is nice that I don’t have to take up a bunch of space with a bed. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be able to lay down in a bed and sleep, but the pain won’t let me. So to try to make the most of a lousy situation, I ‘see’ my room as my apartment. I have a rug at my doorway. It ain’t much, but it’s home.

August 2, 2013 at 7:03 pm
(11) linda g says:

I too am a side sleeper but find myself sleeping on my back because my hips hurt. I found a very soft mattress that makes it much better. Now the only time I have difficulty is when I’m sleeping elsewhere and the mattress is firm. I definitely sleep on my back then with a pillow under my knees.

August 2, 2013 at 7:46 pm
(12) Barbara says:

I decided to invest in a Sleep Number bed last year. It has really helped the pain from fibro. I adjust it depending on my pain level. The hip pain is much better when I soften the bed. Because I can adjust the firmness, I found that I do not toss and turn during the night.

August 2, 2013 at 8:13 pm
(13) Suzybee says:

I have had to sleep on my back for about 7 years now. I have fms but also have severe OA in my hips whereby my hips have both collapsed completely and were both agonising to lay on. I have had one rebuilt and replaced now but still have to get the other one done. I have used a single electric adjustable bed now for all of those 7 years and really struggle to get to sleep in any other type of bed now. I always sleep with the head end slightly raised and the same with the foot end and that seems to take the strain off of my lower spine which I get a lot of pain. I have found though that to sleep like this and be totally supported without my neck being pushed too far forward by the pillows that I need to only use one pillow and make sure that I pull it down towards my shoulders so that only my head is resting on it and my shoulders are flat on the mattress. I too have Sleep Apnoea and do use a CPAP machine overnight and it is a godsend really but having said that even then I still do not get much more than 4 hours sleep per night without having to get up for an hour or two and then going back again but it has nothing to do with the comfort of the bed.

August 2, 2013 at 9:29 pm
(14) Angie says:

I recently realized that sleeping sitting up means I wake up in little to no pain. I slept that way for weeks while I waited for a gall bladder surgery. As soon as I had the surgery and went back to lying down the pain came right back. Thinking back to a shoulder surgery a few years back when I slept sitting up for nearly 6 months, I had a near remission. I thought it was the intense physical therapy, but I now think my sleep position was a factor. I do have a sleep number bed that is adjustable so at least I am in bed.

August 2, 2013 at 11:42 pm
(15) julia says:

I have been sleeping on a chiroflow water pillow for years,am up to my 3rd one,i find it the best for any position

August 3, 2013 at 1:56 am
(16) Di says:

I have FM, back problems, GERD and have had a Thorocotomy so have considerable rib pain from time to time, also I have HIP pain. I have found that if I sleep on my back I am much more comfortable (well as comfortable as I am ever likely to be). I use a concave pillow
for my neck and put a small pillow under my knees. I also have a TempurPedic 3 inch mattress topper which is brilliant and I could not do without it. The TempurPedic mattress of course would be perfect but they are SO expensive (in Australia). I do find that sleeping on my back is much better for my HIP pain, as well, it seems, for all my other ‘ailments”.

August 3, 2013 at 3:13 am
(17) Shannon Hutcheson says:

I have had to sleep on my back with pillows under my knees for many years. I have also put a foam wedge between the mattresses to raise the head of my bed. I also have sleep apnea and a CPAP machine. So it’s awkward to sleep any other way because of that as well.

I find I cannot be comfortable enough or sleep in any other position. My hubby and I now have 2 single beds, side by side. That way I don’t disturb him with getting up or going to bed at odd hours (which I tend to do despite how hard I try to keep “normal” hours).

Pain wise, this is the only way I can tolerate laying down. I too have hip pain (both), but it is the costochondritis that causes the majority of my pain. Sometimes, when I lay down, it feels as though my chest is going to crack open. It hurts to breathe. Not fun at all.

August 3, 2013 at 4:02 pm
(18) Shoshana says:

I just counted and I have 9 pillows on my bed. I sleep almost sitting up with a special neck cushion and a very soft special back cushion both of which go with me whenever I have to sleep in another bed. I also have a wedge under my knees to relieve pressure on my back. I still have to do stretching every time I wake up, before I can even get off the bed. I sometimes have to put cushions under my arms as well. I feel like the princess and the pea.

At the moment I have trigger finger and thumb – very painful. Has anyone also had this and what did you do about it?


August 3, 2013 at 11:42 pm
(19) Rain says:

Adrienne, i too would like some more info on the OA , I have slept in my left side for the last 8 years too, because pain on the hips can really be excruciating,plus the fact that when one has migraines and RLS we really have no choices but to be awake and try other strategies to catch up on the much needed rest.

August 3, 2013 at 11:46 pm
(20) Maryhelen says:

Sleep or napping is not enjoyable. Always uncomfortable. On cpap, if I can keep on I feel better but its a battle. Restorative sleep has been alot of my problem. Won’t give up though.

August 5, 2013 at 11:55 am
(21) Laura says:

I found that I can only fall asleep on my side…. But I found that I have to sleep with a pillow between my feet, a specialty pillow between my knees and holding a fairly large soft pillow so I don’t roll or twist my spine. I sleep with a Tempurpedic bed with side Tempurpedic pillow with a bag of ice cubes on my head…..

Before I did this, I would wake up and it would take 5 or 10 minutes to even get out of bed my back would be in so much pain….and then I would have to immediately go to a recliner with a heating pad on high for an hour or two before I could actually walk around in a straight and upright manner.

Now with my pillow arrangements, I sleep for 30 min-2 hour increments, and then get up and am up and down all night..but wake up without the low back problems…..

That plus my craniosacral physical therapy!..

February 5, 2014 at 10:24 am
(22) Doreen says:

I have been doing months and months of research on the exact same issue! I also have severe pain from fibromyalgia, lupus, sciatica and several other conditions as well. What I have read is that memory foam beds are one of the worst types of beds for fibro people! It doesn’t matter how good the bed is, it’s just one of the worst. The best types of beds for people with fibro fall into the air bed and latex versions. You might want to check it out. Look specifically for the bad back article from a website that tests beds called “sleeplikethedead”. I know, morbid sounding, but they have an article that explains the why behind what I’ve said. I’m looking into getting a latex bed the minute I can afford one. I’ve yet to see a bad review about them for people with chronic pain. Good luck!

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