How to Sleep With Back Pain

Tips for Turning Your Torture Chamber Into an Oasis of Rest

How to Sleep With Back PainIf you live with chronic lower back pain or neck pain, sleep has probably become a challenge for you. Even before I developed fibromyalgia, I had chronic upper back and SI joint pain, which caused countless sleepless nights.

By the time I was finally diagnosed, I had come to see my bedroom as a torture chamber! This article focuses on tips for sleeping better, based on my many trial and error experiences, divided into two sections: how to best support your sleep posture (using pillows and mattress toppers) and how to manage your sleep environment (by focusing on temperature, light and noise).

I have researched and tried most of these strategies, and my hope is you find some ideas here to transform your torture chamber into an oasis of rest. Sleeping as well as you can is important for your overall health, as well as for managing your chronic pain.

One final note — if self-care strategies are not enough, it’s important to talk to your healthcare professional about getting additional help.

Body Support: Pillows, Mattresses, and Mattress Toppers

If you live with chronic neck or back pain, the days of sleeping on any old mattress, with any old pillow, in any position, are probably over (or they should be!)

Neck Pillow

Without a supportive neck pillow I develop serious neck pain and migraines. Sometimes called orthopedic or ergonomic neck pillows, they are often designed in a contoured wave-like form, and support the natural alignment of the head, neck and spine.


If you sleep on your side, there are specially designed contour pillows, and this will be advertised in the description. Materials like memory foam, latex or bamboo fiber help provide consistent, durable support.

Orthopedic neck pillows are more costly than regular pillows, starting at about $30. In my experience, though, buying one is totally worth it! Pillows should be replaced every 1-2 years.

Additional Pillows for Body Support

Many back pain experts recommend using pillows to support your posture while you sleep. I have to sleep on my back at all times, or else my spine revolts!

In this position, most experts recommend stacking one to three pillows under your knees to relieve pressure on your lower back. Some also recommend placing a small pillow under the low back (personally I find this uncomfortable, but we are all unique).

If you sleep on your side, bend your knees and put a firm pillow in between to keep your spine aligned. Sleeping on your stomach is not recommended for back pain, but if you can only fall asleep this way, put a small pillow under your hips.

Mattress and Mattress Toppers

My parents always swore that a firm mattress cured back pain. Personally, a firm mattress triggers my SI joint pain!

Whether to use a soft or firm mattress is a decision best made with your physical therapist or chiropractor, and depends on your personal situation and preferences. I use a memory foam mattress cover so my body is supported better than my mattress alone can provide.

Another mattress topper option is the CuddleEwe, which uses specialty wool, and is designed to relieve pressure on your body contact points when lying down (ex. shoulders and hips) by diffusing weight.

Alternatively, there is the N:rem mattress topper, which lets you rearrange panels of soft, medium or firm support where you need them, like puzzle pieces. I have not tried these last two products but have read positive reviews written by chronic pain bloggers.

Next page: how to sleep with back pain — temperature, light, and noise.

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Katarina ZulakKatarina Zulak

Katarina Zulak is an ePatient blogger and health writer. Six years ago she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. On her blog, she writes about learning to be skillfully well, even when living with a chronic condition. Katarina lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and their cat Lily.

Nov 21, 2016
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