If you are suffering from back and neck pain, one of the first suggestions you may hear is to rest. While giving the body time to recover in this way can be helpful, pain from a herniated disc may not be helped by lying down. In fact, sleeping is often one of the activities that causes herniated disc pain to worsen. This makes the condition hard to find relief from throughout the day. Proper medical care can help address the root cause of this pain, but during the course of treatment for back pain, you still need to sleep comfortably. Read on for tips on how to get rest when you are experiencing herniated disc pain.
About Herniated Discs
Rather than a single bone, the spinal column is made up of 33 small bones called vertebrae stacked atop each other. This is what allows the spine to twist, bend, and facilitate most movement in the body. To avoid friction between these bones and absorb shock, these vertebrae are each separated by intervertebral discs. Each disc is a small sac with a hard outer shell and a gel-like substance inside. These discs remaining in place and buoyant ensures proper movement in the spine and proper nerve communication throughout the body.
Over time, these discs may become dehydrated and less flexible, leading to pain in the back. They can also be damaged during a traumatic event like a car accident or a sports injury. When the discs are moved out of place, have a bulge that enters the area around the spine, or rupture, it is known as a herniation. Any area of the disc that moves out of its place between vertebrae will enter the space surrounding the spine where nerves sit. This places pressure on the nerves and causes pain, numbness, and another discomfort. A herniated disc can occur in any part of the spine, though they are most common in the lower back.
Most herniated discs are a result of degeneration over time, which makes it easier for the discs to move and rupture. Sudden force and trauma can also knock a disc out of place, causing the condition.
Sleep Positions for Herniated Discs
People with a herniated disc often report that the pain is worse when lying down, making it difficult to sleep. The pressure from a mattress can cause the disc to further impede on a nerve, causing more irritation and pain. While this may always happen to some extent, there are positions that can be used to help relieve herniated disc pain during sleep.
As a general rule, sleeping on your stomach is not recommended for a herniated disc anywhere in the spine. In fact, this position is not good for the spine even when there is no injury, as it causes a deep arch in the lower back and alters the natural curve of the spine. If you must sleep on your stomach, placing a pillow under your stomach and another under your knees and back can help the spine maintain a neutral position.
The best positions for sleep with a herniated disc will depend on how you typically sleep as well as what part of the spine has been injured.
Sleeping with a Herniated Disc in the Neck
The focus in this scenario is to avoid placing extra pressure on the neck, meaning pillows will be the main element to adjust. For a side sleeper, this means using a thicker pillow that prevents your head from leaning up or down during sleep. A pillow should be thick enough to keep your spine straight and avoid pressure on the discs. It can also be helpful to sleep on a particular side that is less likely to pinch the nerve further.
In contrast, if you sleep on your back, a thinner pillow may be necessary. Your neck should be in the same position lying down as when you stand up straight, not tilted upward or downward by a pillow.
Sleeping with a Herniated Disc in the Lower Back
The most common location for a herniated disc to occur is in the lumbar spine, or lower back. This can be especially problematic for people who sleep on their back, which places pressure primarily on that portion of the spine. A rolled-up towel under the back can help relieve pressure on the lower back. In fact, when you have it at the right thickness, you should feel some immediate relief. You can also use stacked pillows or a wedge under your legs to take pressure off the lower back.
If you are a side sleeper, place pillows under your knees for some relief. In the case of sciatica, you should be able to lie on the unaffected side.
Sleeping with a Herniated Disc in the Middle or Upper Back
While this is a rarer injury, discs in the upper back or middle back, the thoracic spine, can also become herniated. In this case, the goal will be to decompress your spine as much as possible. The position of your neck will be imperative for sleeping with this condition, so ensure your pillow keeps your spine neutral. A towel under your lower back may also be helpful here.
Sleeping on your side can offer the most relief in this case. It is often recommended to sleep in the fetal position to take pressure off the upper spine, but be sure to also put a pillow between your knees if you choose this route.
Treating a Herniated Disc
While relief during sleeping will be important to ensure you are rested and able to heal, most herniated discs require treatment to fully resolve and prevent a recurrence.
If you suspect you have a herniated disc and are waiting to begin treatment, there are some steps you can take at home to relieve symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening. Try some of these methods:
- Use heat packs to relieve muscle spasms in the area. Saunas and hot baths can also be helpful in relieving these spasms.
- Ice packs can reduce swelling and limit inflammation. Use ice packs in ten-minute intervals to relieve pain.
- Over-the-counter medications can relieve pain. Many options, like ibuprofen, also have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the pressure on the nerves surrounding the disc.
- Rest, avoiding any heavy physical activity and any motion that worsens the pain.
Treatment for a herniated disc can usually be accomplished with non-invasive methods of care. Chiropractic care to ensure the spine is aligned and not contributing to pain will be the first line of defence and is often paired with physical therapy. This therapy uses a combination of exercises and massage to help the spine maintain neutrality and allow the disc to return to its normal space, relieving pressure from the nerves. During the course of treatment, anti-inflammatory medication may be used to relieve pain and allow relaxation of the muscles. This can be done through oral medications as well as epidural steroid injections for more severe pain.
If the problem is not resolved with these methods, a doctor may discuss surgical options for relief. Surgery can be used to replace discs with artificial versions of the disc or by removing the disc and fusing the vertebrae together in that space. The most common form of surgery is the removal of the protruding portion of the disc, leaving the rest in place.
Preventing Herniated Discs
While a herniated disc can occur in response to sudden injury, they are often a result of risk factors like disc degeneration or certain physical activity. Avoiding the condition in the first place can save a lot of pain, lost sleep, and time in physical therapy. It is also important to focus on preventing a recurrence after you have experienced a disc herniation.
Some ways you can prevent a disc herniation may include the following:
- Staying properly hydrated so that your discs remain buoyant and effective.
- Regularly exercise to strengthen core muscles and reduce any excess body weight that may place extra pressure on the spine.
- Always practice safe lifting techniques, using your legs and avoiding bending.
- Focus on good posture when sitting and standing. Keep your shoulders aligned above your hips and your chin parallel to the floor. Avoid slouching and keep all screens at eye level.
- Avoid stomach sleeping and use a firm mattress. Placing a pillow under your knees can also relieve pressure even when you have not suffered from an injury.
- Stop or avoid using cigarettes, which can lessen oxygen flow and increase the risk of injury.
- Keep your spine in proper alignment through regular chiropractic care.
Whether you are currently suffering from a herniated disc or want to prevent it from occurring, AICA Jonesboro has a team of specialists ready to assist. Our chiropractors and physical therapists will work with you to create alignment and design a routine for you to implement at home, including optimizing your sleep. If you do need more invasive treatment like surgery, our team includes surgeons who will work alongside your team to develop a comprehensive plan. Contact AICA Jonesboro today to begin finding relief.