How to Relieve Lower Back Pain While Sleeping

If you frequently experience lower back pain, you are not alone. About 31 million Americans experience pain in the lumbar region at some point in their lives. Whether this pain is short-term or long-term, mild or severe, it affects many different aspects of everyday life.

The intricate structure of vertebrae, spinal discs, ligaments, and tendons in the lower back plays a large role in all types of movement. Whether we are standing, walking, sitting, or laying down, the lower back is engaged and working to keep you supported. With constant use and strain on these muscles, it is no wonder many people develop pain in this area.

While lower back pain can affect your daily activities, it can also decrease your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Your sleep position and mattress can either soothe lower back pain or exacerbate it. In some cases, an unsupportive mattress can even be the cause of the pain.

To help you find relief and a better night’s sleep, we outline how to relieve lower back pain while sleeping. We explain the best sleep position and mattress type to ease pain and wake up feeling refreshed.

Types of Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain can be either acute or chronic. Below, we explain the differences between these two types of back pain.

  • Acute lower back pain: Acute pain is short-term and typically lasts between 2 to 14 days with no long-term effects on mobility. It is often caused by an injury or activity.
  • Chronic lower back pain: Chronic pain lasts for 3 months or longer. This pain often occurs without an identifiable injury and is typically caused by constant strain on the lower back muscles.

It is important to note that about 20 percent of acute lower back pain cases eventually become chronic.

How Can Sleep Cause Lower Back Pain?

Lower back pain and sleep are interconnected. Pain and discomfort in the lumbar region can make it difficult for us to get comfortable and fall asleep.

Lower pain back can also cause constant sleep disruptions and lost hours of sleep. In turn, sleep deprivation can slow the healing process and cause a chemical imbalance that affects how we process pain. This traps us in a dangerous cycle of poor sleep and constant discomfort.

Additionally, resting on an unsupportive mattress can force the spine to bow, causing the back’s muscles to clench and tighten. Awkward and uncomfortable sleep positions can lead to tension build-up, making it difficult for the muscles in the back to relax and recover.

No matter the cause of your lower back pain, changing your sleep posture and mattress can ensure pain relief and better sleep.

Best Sleep Positions for Lower Back Pain

According to experts, the best sleep position for back pain is resting on one’s side with the knees partially bent. This posture is often referred to as the fetal position.

In the fetal position, you should place a firm pillow under the head to support the neck. An additional pillow can be placed between the knees to prevent tension build-up. This position helps the back muscles relax and ensures no pressure is placed on the lumbar spine.

If you are not typically a side sleeper, you can train yourself to rest on your side by placing a pillow barrier along the back of your body. If you start to roll to your back during the night, the pillows will remind you to stay on your side. Likewise, if you are a stomach sleeper, hugging a pillow in front of your body can help you remain on your side.

Do neither of these options help? Are you still more comfortable sleeping on your back or stomach? There are other steps you can take to reduce lower back pain while sleeping.

  • Back sleeping: Back sleepers can place a pillow under the knees, legs, or lower back to lessen the curve of the spine and alleviate muscle tension. A wedge pillow can sufficiently raise the lower body. When resting in this position, the hips and shoulders are aligned to keep the spine neutral.
  • Stomach sleeping: Resting on the stomach can cause the spine to bow upwards, leading to pressure build-up in the lower back and neck. A thin, small pillow can be placed under the hips to reduce the U-shape of the spine and ease tension, as doing this gently lifts the pelvis and ensures the hips and shoulders remain in alignment.

Those with lower back pain often find an adjustable bed beneficial. Lifting the legs during sleep provides extra support to the lumbar region, allowing the muscles to relax and recover.

If you are not able to purchase an adjustable bed, you can get a similar effect with a high-quality wedge pillow. Place a wedge pillow under the knees to keep the legs elevated during sleep.

Lower Back Pain and Your Mattress

Mattresses that are too soft or too firm can often force your spine out of alignment and cause tension to build-up in the lower back. Below, we explain how to select the right mattress firmness for lower back pain relief.

Mattress Firmness

Typically, the mattress firmness right for you depends on your preferred sleep position and body type. For example, the best mattresses for side sleepers are often soft to medium because they cushion and protect the joints from pressure points. The right mattress for back sleeping is usually medium-firm to firm for even weight distribution and natural spinal alignment.

Typically, the best mattress for back pain is medium-firm. This comfort level is firm enough to support the lumbar spine and reduce excess sinking. It is also soft enough to prevent pressure points near the hips and shoulders when side sleeping.

However, lightweight sleepers, those under 130 pounds, may find a medium-firm mattress too firm. Therefore, they may want to opt for one with a medium firmness instead.

If your current mattress is too soft, it may be contributing to your low back pain. If you are not in a position to purchase a new bed, you can increase the mattress’s firmness by adding a medium-firm to firm memory foam mattress topper. A topper can increase support to the lumbar region and promote a healthy spinal position.

Mattress Type

Different types of mattresses have various layers and support technology that can change the firmness of the bed. Below, we explain the best mattress types for lower back pain and how they vary in terms of firmness.

  • Memory foam: Memory is ideal for pain relief because it conforms to the body for instant support and pressure relief. Plus, memory foam mattresses are available in many different firmness levels, from ultra-soft to firm.
  • Latex foam: Like memory foam, latex foam contours to the body and relieves pressure. However, latex foam has a slight bounce that keeps sleepers lifted on the mattress rather than cradled. This mattress type works well for heavier sleepers because it prevents over sinking and spinal misalignment. Most latex foam beds have a medium to medium-firm comfort level.
  • Hybrid: Hybrid mattresses have a foam comfort layer and a base of pocketed spring coils. Depending on the type of foam used in the mattress, hybrids can be made to feel both soft and firm. The bounce of the spring coil base promotes even weight distribution and prevents sinking.
  • Innerspring: While innerspring beds typically have a medium-firm feel, we don’t recommend these mattresses to those with lower back pain. The thinner comfort layer on an innerspring bed does not provide much pressure relief. Plus, traditional innerspring coils tend to break and bend over time, creating a lumping and unsupportive mattress that can exaggerate lower back pain.

When to See a Doctor About Lower Back Pain

In most cases, lower back pain decreases after a week or two and does not cause any long term damage. However, it is important to talk to your doctor about your lower back pain if you experience any of the following:

  • Pain becomes progressively worse over 2 to 3 days
  • Pain began with an injury
  • Pain becomes debilitating and prevents mobility
  • Pain radiates down the legs or arms
  • Pain causes weakness, tingling, or numbness in the lower body
  • You also experience fever or redness, warmth, or swelling near the affected area
  • You have a history of cancer or another serious health complication

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does my back hurt when lying in bed?

If your back hurts when lying down, it is likely because your spine is being forced out of alignment. If your mattress is too soft, your hips will sink too far into the bed, causing the spine to bow. A bed that is too firm may not provide enough sinkage and cause the spine to curve downward. 

Either scenario can lead to pain and discomfort tied to insomnia and sleep deprivation.

What exercises can I do to relieve lower back pain?

Gently stretching the muscles and tendons in the lumbar region can help relieve lower back pain. Our article on lower back stretches provides step by step instructions on how to perform these exercises safely. We cover nine different stretches and answer frequently asked questions.

Is walking good for lower back pain?

Yes. Walking is great for lower back pain because it increases flexibility and strengthens the lower back muscles. Stronger muscles increase spinal support, while flexibility increases the range of motion and reduces the likelihood of strains. 

How do you relax your lower back muscles?

There are several ways to relax and alleviate tension in your lower back muscles. When resting on your back, you can bend the knees and place your feet flat on the floor or mattress. You can also place a pillow under your thighs and relax your legs out in front of you. Lastly, a pillow can be placed between your knees to eliminate pressure on your lower back when side sleeping.

How many days rest for lower back pain?

Bed rest is a great way to reduce acute lower back pain. The length of time needed to alleviate pain will depend on the severity of the injury. In most cases, doctors recommend between 2 days and 2 weeks of bed rest. 

However, too much bed rest could slow the healing process. Therefore, most doctors recommend resuming daily activities after a few days. If you are unsure how long to rest your back after a strain or injury, it is best to talk to your doctor first. 

Did We Help You Relieve Your Lower Back Pain?

Adequate sleep is essential to good health. If you find yourself struggling to get a decent night’s sleep due to lower back pain, it may be worth changing your mattress or sleep position. If you can’t upgrade your bed right away, a high-quality mattress topper or wedge pillow may help you find relief.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Sarah Anderson, Editor-in-Chief Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson is a sleep, health, and wellness writer and product reviewer. She has written articles on changing and improving your sleep schedule, choosing the right mattress for chronic pain conditions, and finding the best pillow for you. Sarah Anderson has her Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University in Journalism and Mass Communications. Prior to working for Zoma, she wrote for a variety of news publications.

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