11 May 2021

How to sleep with sciatica

sciatica pain in bed

Sciatica is a very painful and debilitating condition, impacting mobility and life quality. Anyone who has had sciatica in the past or currently lives with it, knows all too well how disruptive it can be. While wheelchairs and UK stairlifts can make tasks such as getting around the house easier, lying down to sleep is another matter. Unfortunately, sciatica pain, which originates in the lower back area and shoots down your leg, can make even the simplest tasks such as sleeping very difficult. In this article, we discuss some tips and advice for how those with sciatica can learn to sleep better so that night-time becomes a little more manageable.

What are the causes of sciatica?

Before we dive into our tips for relieving pain and helping sleep, let’s take a look at the causes of sciatica. Sciatica is symptoms of pain and numbness that radiate along the sciatic nerve from the lower back to the leg. Speaking about the causes of sciatica, the Schoen Clinic, an orthopaedic and spinal hospital shares:

“Sciatica is most commonly caused by a disc herniation/protrusion. It can also occur as a result of disc degeneration. When a disc degenerates, the tough fibrous wall of the disc can weaken and split. No longer able to contain the gel-like substance in the centre, the split disc releases inflammatory proteins (herniation), which can cause pain when it comes into contact with a nerve (sciatica).”

Tips and advice for sleeping with sciatica

Sleep on your side

person sleeping on side.jpg

The key to finding a sleeping position that works with sciatica is lying in positions that maintain the natural alignment of your spine. Sleeping on your side is something that many people find to be the most comfortable as it can reduce pain by alleviating the pressure on your sciatic nerve. Try to lie on the side that isn’t affected by your sciatica.

Many people are natural back sleepers, but this should be avoided if possible. Will Harlow, a sciatica specialist from the site, How to Get Rid of Sciatica, explains why: “When people ask me about the best way to sleep with sciatica, I ask if they usually lay flat on their backs. When we sleep laid out flat, this position can lead to a stretching tension on the sciatic nerve. You should know one thing when it comes to sciatica: nerves hate to be stretched!”

Use a pillow between your knees or under your back

If you sleep on your back naturally, utilise a pillow under your knee to reduce the stretch that Will mentions above. If you lie on your side and there is a gap between your waist and the mattress, consider placing a pillow here to prevent your side from bending when you sleep. You can also consider putting a pillow between your knees when you sleep as this will help your spine and pelvis to retain their natural position and reduce rotation. 

Barbara, from the website Back Pain Blog – a personal journey of a chronic back pain sufferer – has shared her thoughts and tips when it comes to utilising pillows to combat back pain when sleeping: “Even if you have spent a fortune on the best mattress in the world, there’s a good chance you won’t know true comfort until you’ve purchased a pillow specifically targeting your type of pain — whether it’s in your upper back, lower back, neck, shoulders or beyond. It can also depend on if you are a front, side or back sleeper.”

Avoid sleeping on your stomach

person sleeping on stomach

Another good tip if you have sciatica or any type of lower back pain is to avoid sleeping on your stomach if you can help it. This is because when you sleep on your stomach, your spine curves towards the mattress which puts pressure on the area that is causing your pain. To prevent yourself from rolling over onto your stomach while you are asleep, you could try using a body pillow. Body pillows encourage a healthy sleeping position, prevent you from rolling on to your stomach, and supports your back and joints.

Don’t use a mattress that is too soft

While a soft bed might be your preference, if you have developed sciatica, it might not be the best idea. A mattress that is firmer could well help make your nights more comfortable as you won’t be sinking into an overly soft mattress that puts your spine out of alignment. So, try and get yourself a medium-firm mattress or consider putting something firmer under your existing mattress, such as plywood. The Sleep Foundation has put together an article about the best mattresses for sciatica if you decide a new mattress is the way to go.

Get out of bed if you wake up from the pain

Unfortunately, even when we manage to drift off to sleep, sciatica pain can cause us to wake up in the middle of the night, making it very difficult to go back to sleep again. Instead of lying there thinking about the pain, something you could try is getting out of bed and walking around the house a little. This is the advice of Fornham Chiropractic Clinic who have made a video with some great tips for those struggling to sleep due to sciatica. Speaking in the video, one of their chiropractors advises:

“The reason people get a lot of pain at night is because of lack of movement. The body needs a bit of movement to be able to reduce the pain and when you are laying in bed for two, three, four hours, that’s when the pain comes back again. What you need to do when it gets really painful is get out of bed and walk about. Do it for 10-15 minutes… get some movement in that lower back.”

Adapt your bedtime routine

person in bath tub

Another tactic you can try in your quest for a good night’s sleep is to adapt your bedtime routine to include some relaxing activities. By adding some light-stretching or some yoga to your pre-bed routine, you can help to loosen your back’s muscles and reduce the pressure that is on your sciatic nerve. You could also consider a nice warm bath before bed, which will act in a similar way to relax your body, loosen things up, and soothe any existing pain. These tactics might not work for everyone, but they are certainly worth a try.

The team behind the very helpful Sciatic Pain Relief Cushion, have shared their tips for sleeping with sciatica and recommend the stretching approach before bed: “Some light stretching before bed can be surprisingly beneficial. The NHS recommends some lower body stretches to improve pain and flexibility. These are simple exercises that can be done by anyone of any age. After your light workout, it might help to have a bath to help soak and relax the muscles and prepare your body for sleep.”

READ ALSO: Tips on how to care for ageing parents at home

Top tips for sleeping with sciatica

  • Sleep on your side
  • Use a pillow between your knees or under your back
  • Avoid sleeping on your stomach
  • Don’t use a mattress that is too soft
  • Get out of bed if you wake up from the pain
  • Adapt your bedtime routine

We hope the above tips prove useful and get you a few steps closer to a better night’s sleep. If you would like a few more tips, have a listen below to this great podcast by Active X Backs, Edinburgh based osteopaths who specialise in pain relief and prevention. Their site has a bunch of helpful tips for those with back pain and sciatica.

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