How To Sleep With Upper Back Pain- 4 Effective Sleeping Positions

Sleep is one of the very basic human needs. Sleep helps rejuvenate and recharge your body for the next shift of work. It will be very hectic if you don’t get enough sleep in a day.

Your sleeping positions majorly decide how sweet your dreams are going to be! But what if you have some upper back pain? How to sleep with upper back Pain?

1. What is Upper Back Pain?

Upper Back Pain mainly happens at any part between the base of your neck and the ribcage. Your body’s upper and middle back are also known as the Thoracic Spine. The Thoracic Spine consists of 12 small bones known as Vertebrae. And the thing which constitutes your backbone is this Vertebrae.

how to sleep with upper back pain
Facing Upper Back Pain. By madartzgraphics / Pixabay. Copyright 2023.

Now, each vertebra on the Thoracic Spine is connected with a pair of ribs. The ribs go around your body towards a long, flat bone down the Center part of your Chest. This is known as the Sternum, which forms the Ribcage.

The upper back has disks that help separate vertebrae. Whenever you move or displace your body, shock waves are received by the body, which these disks absorb. Numerous muscles and ligaments in the upper back also help hold your spine efficiently.

Upper Back Pain may result from various medical issues or injuries caused by accidents. Injuries to muscles, ligaments, discs, and bones in the upper back region can cause such pain.

An interesting thing about upper back pain is that it is not as ordinary as back and neck pain. The reason behind this is the bones in your upper back area. When the bones of your upper back area do not move or flex as much as those of your neck and lower back area, you feel the pain.

That’s where the bones of your upper back area along with the ribs work hard to keep your back area stable. The smooth working of these bones helps you protect vital organs like the lungs and heart.

1.1 Causes for Upper Back Pain

1.1.1 Muscle Overuse

Overuse of back muscles is a serious cause of upper back pain. It generally happens when you keep repeating the same motions every time. It mainly happens due to tightness, irritation and muscle strain.

If you keep repeating such activities, they may cause you similar pain. If you keep making the same movements and motions all day, you will experience pain. For example, if you keep lifting weights over your head all day, you may experience muscle strain, tightness, or irritation. If you ignore these signs, you will experience chronic back pain.

Resting in that particular area can treat muscle overuse pains. Heat and ice packs can also promote blood circulation in the muscle tissues. Try to rest or take breaks between treatments. A physiotherapist might suggest a few exercises that will help with flexibility and strength.

1.1.2 Traumatic Injury

One of the key reasons for upper back pain may be a traumatic injury. Traumatic injuries generally happen due to incorrect weightlifting, slipping and falling, hard work out, accidents while working and car accidents.

What Causes Upper Back Pain? | Back Pain Relief

Sometimes, the injury is natural, and you experience pain right after it. But it may not be the same every time. Sometimes, you might not experience pain right after the injury, but you will develop it over some time.

Traumatic injuries may be serious and severe, and the issues about the injury can also put you at risk of long-lasting complications or chronic back pain. For example, a fracture in the vertebrae1 can cause nerve damage or paralysis.

1.1.3 Herniated Disc

A herniated disc is mostly found in the lower back, but it can sometimes be found in the upper back as well. Discs are present in the spine to prevent vertebrae from rubbing against each other.

Mayo Clinic Explains Herniated Disk

Discs are soft and rubbery cushions between each vertebra. And whenever a piece of disc pokes through which eventually puts pressure on the spine, you can know herniated discs took place. Even a little pressure can make you feel severe pain in the middle back. You also experience symptoms like weakness or numbness either in your arms or in your legs.

Herniated Disc needs no surgery as it is recoverable with anti-inflammatory medications2.

1.1.4 Muscle Deconditioning and Poor Posture

Generally, people condition their muscles for some time to be stronger. Muscles can be made more enduring with the help of exercise and weight training. To bring this to your knowledge people also decondition their muscles by not using them correctly.

Conditioning may be hard, but deconditioning isn’t the same. In certain muscles, including the back muscles, deconditioning is quite easy. Deconditioning can occur by sitting at a desk incorrectly or in poor posture for a long time.

Loss of muscle strength can be caused just by reclining in a chair. When muscles start weakening, you start to experience pain and strain in that particular area over time.

Whenever a person slouches, the pressure from gravity and his body starts pushing on the spine, discs, ligaments, and neck. After some time, the person will start feeling immense pain and other complications.

1.1.5 Osteoarthritis

Sometimes, bones and joints, in addition to muscles, cause back pain. When we start ageing, the cartilage that protects the bones might wear down, causing Osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment & pathology

The bones start to rub against each other when the cartilage completely wears away, and that’s when osteoarthritis happens. Eventually, it starts to put pressure on your nerves in the spine, which causes numbness and tingling in your legs and arms.

1.2 Is Upper Back Pain Serious?

Home remedies can usually provide relief from upper back pain in a couple of weeks. These include painkillers, applying ice or heat, stretching, and resting. You can also limit certain activities that result in back strain.

Sometimes upper back pain heals on its own. But sometimes the injury may be serious. Such serious injury can damage your spinal cord and can also paralyze you. Moreover, you must know that upper back pain may be a calling if you are facing some serious medical conditions.

Please consult a physical therapist if you experience any pain in your upper back regarding the following:

  • Suspicious Weight Loss: If you lose weight without any change in diet and also have upper back pain, then you might have a tumour or infection. Weight Loss with upper back pain can be a constructive sign of a developing tumour or infection.
  • Breathing Problems and Chest Pain: If you are facing such symptoms along with upper back pain, then it might result in a Heart Attack. There could also be a possibility of rib injury or issues in the lungs due to breathing problems and chest pain.
  • Fever without Symptoms: If you are facing breathing issues and fever without any symptoms with upper back pain, it may be a sign of spinal infection3.
  • Tingling, Pain, or Numbness in Arms and Legs: If you experience upper back pain from your back to your leg, you could suffer from Sciatica. Herniated discs can also cause such symptoms in your arms and legs.
  • Slowness in Reaction of Arms and Legs: If you are having upper back pain and you also experience slowness in the reaction of your arms and legs then it might be the signs of Cervical Spondylotic Myelopathy4. Cervical Spondylotic Myelopathy is the squeezing of your spinal cord. When the spinal cord is tweaked, CSM can delay the message sent by the brain to our arms and legs. It mostly happens when we age, and our arms and legs react slowly.

1.3 How to Prevent Upper Back Pain?

It may not be easy for you to treat it, but there are some ways by which you can have upper back pain relief. These are some of the easy ways you can follow to ensure you avoid upper back pain. They are:

  • Try to keep your muscles loose and strong. You can just take a break in between your work at your desk to stretch.
  • Try to take frequent breaks from sitting or lying down. To prevent upper back pain, you can do stretches and move different muscle groups.
  • Before you do any activities or exercises, always take some time to stretch the muscles. You can also have a warm-up.

4 Exercises To Relieve Upper Back Pain in 60 Seconds

  • Avoid twisting or lifting your back while you lift heavy objects.
  • Consult a physiotherapist to work on your muscles to strengthen them and keep the pressure off the joints.
  • Try to be conscious of your posture every time. Poor posture can be a factor in upper back pain. Learn to sit and walk in the correct posture. If necessary, then use a back support.
  • Frequent body massages can help you work out muscle tension.
  • Don’t carry excessive burden or weight in your backpack.

2. Importance of Sleeping positions

Different sleep positions can affect sleep quality. You can track your sleep for a couple of weeks to determine which position improves your sleep.

You must admit that sleep is the most important thing in our lives and health. The concept of sleep and sleeping position is like an iceberg, as there is much more underneath that you can’t see! The sleeping position plays a huge role in sound and quality sleep. You must know what works for you and what does not.

Different sleep positions offer different kinds of benefits. If a person is experiencing pain or any health problem, then there might be a need to change their sleeping position. It’s not easy to change your regular sleeping position overnight, but changing it would be very helpful. You can work on it daily to make it fruitful.

You can take ample time to train yourself for a new sleeping position that will give you a good night’s sleep. Just focus on improving your sleep quality with your new sleeping position. But don’t take it hard on yourself or get stressed. A little modification to your sleeping position can help you accommodate it.

3. Best Sleeping Positions for Upper Back pain

3.1 On Your Back

The best sleep position is considered to be sleeping on the back. Sleeping on the back has been proven to be quite effective in maintaining spine alignment5. However, many people face difficulties sleeping in this position due to their poor posture, which hampers neutral alignment.

To make sleeping on the back comfortable, you can add a pillow. A thin pillow beneath your back will help you get quality sleep, but it has to be placed correctly to keep your spine straight. To keep the spine aligned, put a pillow under your knees, head, and neck. It provides the required support to maintain the natural curve of the spine.

Well, this sleeping position does have some limitations for some persons with certain conditions, such as:

  • Sleep Apnea: Your breathing tube might get blocked by your tongue, if you sleep on the back. If you have sleep apnea, then try sleeping on your side with your legs straight for pain-free sleep.
  • Pregnant Women: During pregnancy, a pregnant woman must avoid sleeping on the back. Sleeping on the back puts a pregnant woman in danger of developing health issues such as back pain and low blood pressure. It can also lead to a decrease in blood circulation to the heart which can hamper the development of the fetus.
  • Snoring Issues: If you have snoring issues, then sleeping on your back can worsen it. It is advisable to sleep on their sides instead.

3.2 Fetal Position

Sleeping on your side is also known as Fetal Position. Fetal Position involves sleeping on their side with legs bent and tucked to their chest. You might also find people who would curl their torsos around the knees.

People having herniated discs must try sleeping on their side. This is because, by curling the torso, the space between the vertebrae opens up, giving you better sleep.

Most people facing upper back pain find the fetal position the best sleeping position. But if you are uncomfortable with the position, you can use a flatter pillow. Using a pillow will provide a fine spinal alignment and also prevent you from curling too firmly.

Types of Fetal Positions - OSCE Guide

Curling up like a ball prevents your upper back and neck from resting in a neutral position. Further, it also results in uneven distribution of weight, which causes back pain and sore joints.

If you find this position comfortable, remember to switch sides frequently during sleep for an even distribution of weight. This can help maintain a healthy spine and prevent spine and back problems6.

3.3 Stomach Sleeping

Stomach Sleeping or sleeping on the stomach is not a healthy option when you are suffering from upper back pain. It may harm your back and neck pain and cause shoulder stress. Stomach sleeping helps stomach sleepers by preventing the spine’s neutral alignment and also adds residual pain to the neck.

However, those who suffer from degenerative disc disease will benefit from this sleeping position. Stomach sleeping releases pressure in between the spaces of the discs. If you feel that Stomach Sleeping is the right position for you, make sure you put the appropriate size of pillow at pressure points. This helps alleviate the pressure from the neck. It also provides comfort and absolute support to the spine.

3.4 Sleeping on the Right Side with Legs Straight

Sleeping on the right side with legs straight is one of the most common sleeping positions. It is generally helpful for people with sleep apnea. Also, people with snoring issues can sleep in this position as it helps in keeping airways open. However, if you want extra comfort in this position, then mindfully keep your hips stacked to experience deep sleep.

Remember to place a firm pillow between your knees, which will help align your lower spine with your hips. Sleeping on the right side with legs straight helps prevent the leg on top from applying extra pressure on your lower back and pelvis. Also, use a head pillow to align your head with the spine. You can also use a waist pillow, which will help maintain the alignment between the upper and lower back.

4. Other Things to Consider for Healthy Sleeping

Various other factors influence your sleep, in addition to your sleeping positions. The most important thing is to keep your spine straight while sleeping.

While sleeping, keep your shoulder blades, hips, and ears aligned to get the best spine support. Avoid turning or twisting while sleeping, as it can ruin your body alignment.

However, apart from the sleeping position, here are other things to consider if you desire to have a good sleep:

4.1 Use a Pillow as a Support

When it comes to filling the gap between our body and the bed, there’s no other option than pillow support. Pillows are the most essential part of a sound sleep. They make sure that the stress is reduced from the neck and also from the other parts of the body. You can easily choose a pillow based on your sleeping position:

Use of Pillows
Use of Pillows as Support. By Królestwo_Nauki / Pixabay. Copyright 2023.
  • Stomach Sleepers- If you are a stomach sleeper then you must use a flat pillow. You can also ditch the pillows together, as a thick pillow may ruin the spine alignment. It is also advised that stomach sleepers sleep with a body pillow as it will make you feel something against your stomach.
  • Back Sleepers—Back Sleepers are also advised to sleep on a flat pillow or a thicker pillow. This is because it has extra padding to provide extra comfort in the neck. A memory foam pillow can be a better option, as it has been created especially for your neck. You can also opt for a water pillow, as it will provide firm support to your head and neck.
  • Side Sleepers- A firm pillow would be the best option for the side sleepers. If you are a side sleeper, then you can also use a pillow with an extra-wide gusset to fill up the space between your ears and shoulder. Add a pillow between your legs for better comfort and spine alignment.

4.2 Firm Mattress

Once upon a time, it was believed that firm mattresses were the best option for relieving upper back pain. But later, it was discovered that it only resulted in poor and unsound sleep. But that doesn’t imply that soft mattresses are the best alternative as they aren’t capable of providing the amount of support our back needs.

Use of Firm Mattress. By MostafaElTurkey36 / Pixabay. Copyright 2023.

If you are thinking of changing your mattress, go for a medium-firm mattress or a firm mattress with some quality innerspring or memory foam. If you can’t afford a new mattress, consider buying a memory foam mattress to improve your sleep.

4.3 An Appropriate Sleep Schedule

Tossing, Twisting and Turning several times during the night while sleeping will make you sleep in, but it is very important to follow a regular bedtime. Also, try waking up at regular times every day, which will help your body develop a better and more efficient sleeping pattern. This will help you develop a sound sleeping pattern.

5. Conclusion

So, that’s all you have to follow to have a sound sleep if you suffer from Upper back pain. Upper back pain can affect you and your health in various ways. It is always better to practice a particular sleeping position and a proper sleep routine. One last advice is that our back is quite sensitive so be careful with it and don’t be overburdened.

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  1. Schousboe, John T. “Epidemiology of vertebral fractures.” Journal of Clinical Densitometry 19.1 (2016): 8-22. ↩︎
  2. Adams, Robert J., et al. “Cause for concern in the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications in the community-a population-based study.” BMC family practice 12.1 (2011): 1-8. ↩︎
  3. Duarte, Rui M., and Alexander R. Vaccaro. “Spinal infection: state of the art and management algorithm.” European Spine Journal 22 (2013): 2787-2799. ↩︎
  4. Tracy, Jennifer A., and J. D. Bartleson. “Cervical spondylotic myelopathy.” The neurologist 16.3 (2010): 176-187. ↩︎
  5. Schwab, Frank, et al. “Adult spinal deformity—postoperative standing imbalance: how much can you tolerate? An overview of key parameters in assessing alignment and planning corrective surgery.” Spine 35.25 (2010): 2224-2231. ↩︎
  6. Linton, Steven J., and Maurits W. van Tulder. “Preventive interventions for back and neck pain problems: what is the evidence?.” Spine 26.7 (2001): 778-787. ↩︎

Last Updated on by Sathi Chakraborty, MSc Biology


Sathi Chakraborty, MSc Biology

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