Find the Perfect Sleep Position

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Find the Perfect Sleep Position
Stomach, Back or Side? How You Slumber Can Aggravate Pain, Prevent the Body From Bouncing Back • By SUMATHI REDDY
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Tossing and turning all night to find that perfect sleeping position? WSJ's Sumathi Reddy joins Lunch Break with new findings on which positions could help you rest up more efficiently. Photo: Getty Images. Tossing and turning all night to find that perfect sleeping position?

Experts say there is no one right way to sleep. But for people with certain types of pain and medical conditions, there are positions that can help keep problems from getting worse and may even alleviate them. In some cases, sleeping in the same position night after night can itself create pain, such as neck or shoulder problems.

"It's important that people take time to think about how they position themselves when they sleep," said Peggy Brill, a Manhattan orthopedic physical therapist. "Rest is important for the muscular skeletal system to recover" from the day's stresses, she said. "The proteins get back into the muscles, there's rejuvenation of the body, so you want to be in a healthy anatomical position when you sleep."

The most common sleeping position is on the side—57% of us at least start the night in that position, according to a nationwide survey of more than 2,000 people performed for mattress maker Tempur-Pedic North America. That's followed by the back—17% of people opt for this position—and the stomach, 11%. Most of the remaining respondents said their position when they first go to bed varies each night.

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Moving around during the night is common. Videotaped sleep studies have found that adults might change their position between three and 36 times a night, with the average person switching about a dozen times. The tendency to shift in one's sleep decreases with age.

Each sleep position has benefits and disadvantages, although sleeping on the stomach generally isn't recommended because it can constrain the neck. Lying flat on your back, for instance, may be good for the lower back but can exacerbate digestive and breathing problems—and snoring.

"You want to make sure that your joints are not being excessively compressed or muscles put in abnormally shortened or stretched positions," said Mary Ann Wilmarth, chief of physical therapy at Harvard University Health Services.

Dr. Wilmarth said that always sleeping in the same position can cause problems. Consistently compressing the body on one side or stretching another side over time can create an imbalance and result in soreness or pain in that area or exacerbate an existing condition.

In general, for most painful conditions, experts say choosing a mattress that isn't too firm or soft is ideal. Something that conforms to your body without creating pressure points works best. And surrounding yourself with multiple pillows usually helps. Getting comfortable when you sleep is important because a lack of sleep can cause joint inflammation and lowers your pain threshold, experts say.

Sometimes the right sleep position changes. Maurine Netchin, 65 years old, used to sleep on her stomach when she was younger. In recent years, the Manhattan resident started sleeping on her left side to avoid light streaming through a window. With the help of Ms. Brill, the orthopedic physical therapist, Ms. Netchin discovered that sleeping on her left side was aggravating an old injury to the rotator cuff in her left shoulder. She now sleeps on her right side hugging a full-length body pillow between her knees. The position allows her to keep her left shoulder and arm in a neutral position, akin to sitting in a chair with arm rests.

Here are some common conditions that may be helped by specific sleep positions.

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