Is sleeping on the floor actually good for your back? Experts weigh in

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If you’ve ever been told to sleep on the floor to combat your back pain, you’re not alone.

While there is little scientific evidence that suggests sleeping on the floor is good for an aching back, it seems to be one of those age-old remedies people still swear by.

Dr. Kate O’Hare, a chiropractor based in Oakville, Ont., said when people are in pain, they seek positions that they find comforting to them, and for many, this includes the floor.

“Sleeping on a firm surface allows for the spine to maintain a position that is a neutral as possible as we sleep,” she told Global News. “A neutral position of the spine is one in which all of the joints are most optimally aligned allowing for the best function of the muscles, joints and most importantly, nervous system.”

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She added when the spine is structurally at its best and the nervous system is functionally at its best, we generally feel better.

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Dr. Ryan Albert, clinic director of Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic in Toronto, added the mattress itself is still considered a modern-day luxury and many people still sleep comfortably on the ground.

“Those who choose to sleep on the floor may be doing this as a cultural norm.”

Are there actual risks?

While it could give your back some much-needed pain relief, there are risks associated with sleeping on the floor. O’Hare said over time, our joints can become compressed.

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“When a joint is compressed for long periods of time, the soft tissues (muscles and ligaments) in the surrounding areas can tighten and the nerve function associated with the spinal joint can also be compromised,” she said. “Compression of soft tissues further from the joint can cause other types of injury, including nerve entrapment, bruising, and even vascular damage.”

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Albert added if you’re switching over to sleep on a harder surface or a floor, your body needs a period during which it can learn how to adapt.

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“It is likely that someone who has slept on a mattress their whole life, and who then decides to ditch it, will experience some aches and pains,” he said, which becomes counterintuitive. “For someone with back pain, it is always recommended to consult with someone first before trying something new, especially during a flare-up.”

And while there isn’t a life-threatening risk related to sleeping on the floor, he said, everything depends on your body type, flexibility and how much back pain you suffer from.

But O’Hare said even though it’s often recommended to sleep on the floor to deal with back pain, she wouldn’t recommend it. “Although a hard floor is firm, we still need a degree of cushion to allow our joints some give to protect the joints themselves,” she continued.

“A hard floor can cause some compression of the joints as we sleep which can cause additional irritation. Furthermore, lying on a very hard surface for long periods of time can cause other soft tissue injuries, involving muscle, ligament, blood vessels and nerves.”

Sleeping tips for bad backs

The way we sleep can significantly affect how our back feels overall. For anyone living with back pain, there are some changes you can make to your bedtime routine. For starters, O’Hare suggested switching to a firm yet slightly flexible mattress.

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Sleeping on your back and side are the most supportive positions for your spine,” she explained. “If you’re sleeping on your back, place a pillow under your knees or calves to help induce a more natural curve in the low back. If you’re sleeping on your side, place a pillow between your knees to help keep your upper hip in a more neutral position so that it’s not straining the low back.”

READ MORE: We’re treating lower back pain all wrong. Here’s how to do it right.

But Albert added sometimes it’s not so easy to determine how someone should be sleeping. “Back pain can present with many different types of positional preferences,” he said.

It would be best to always consult with a health professional to determine what position is best for you. It is common for people to find relief lying on their back with pillows propping up their legs, but it may not be suitable for everyone.”

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