Gravity is not your friend. Life would be easier on the moon. Your posture, even when you are passively sleeping, is still actively fighting against Earth’s pressure on your body. If you have a terrible mattress, don’t have the proper pillow, or are sleeping wrong, you aren’t helping to support your spine, which leads to back injuries. Some common sleep injuries to the back include sciatica, bulging disk and herniated disk.
The largest and longest nerve in your body is the sciatic nerve. It branches off your lower back and runs through your hips, buttocks, thighs and down into your feet. People often say that they have “sciatica,” which is not an injury, but rather a description of pain as a result of an injury in the lower back. Sciatica is a shooting pain along the nerve, usually on one side of the body, accompanied by tingling and numbness. The question is: what is the underlying problem? In relation to common sleep injuries in the back, it’s usually one of the two below.
The disks in your spine are pads between the vertebrae. Each disk is made up of a gooey gel surrounded by cartilage. If you sleep on your stomach, the mattress pushes against the natural S curvature of the spine. Your disks begin to bulge under the pressure, like water balloons when you press down on them. The problem: after time they stay that way.
Let’s pause here and tell you what you can do. At this point if one or more of the disks in your lower back are mildly bulging, when you wake up you’ll have a lower back ache, and some stiffness. You could just pop some ibuprofen and carry on, but I’d advise you to sit up straight and pay attention to your back.
Start on ice/heat therapy and rest your back for a few days, taking a break from heavy lifting or high impact exercise. Sleep on your side with a pillow or rolled towel between your knees or on your back with a rolled towel under your knees. After a few days you should feel better, meaning the disks have gone back to normal.
Whenever someone says they have a “slipped disk,” I always get an odd image of stacked plates, with one plate coming out and the whole lot crashing down. Fortunately, the disks in our spine are very firmly in place and don’t come out! “Slipped disk” is a misnomer. The proper term is “herniated disk.”
If night after night you are sleeping wrong and the disks in your lower back are bulging, that gooey stuff inside of them looks for a place to escape the pressure. It will poke through the cartilage wall around it, or herniate. Then the herniated disk hits on a surrounding nerve: in this case the sciatic nerve.
The treatment for a herniated disk is the same as the bulging disk, with three exceptions: This injury hurts more; it takes longer to heal; you should absolutely see a chiropractor. If the inflammation and pain is severe enough you might need cortisone shots.
Back injury from sleeping wrong is common, but what a lot of my patients don’t realize is that if you don’t treat back injury, it just escalates. Posture, not just when walking, standing or sitting, but when sleeping, is a logical cause for back injury. Support your back by sleeping correctly, walking erectly, and sitting perfectly.