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Spinal Surgery: How to Enjoy Sleep Again with 8 Tips

December 13, 2017

Did you know certain sleeping positions may exacerbate your back pain? Or that, on the contrary, there are actually specific positions that can ease the strain of an aching back?

Sleep restores and rejuvenates our bodies allowing for muscle growth, tissue repair, and hormone production. It's a fancy way of saying it's vital to our healthy and well-being.

Our bodies all require long periods of sleep. As day turns to night, your brain makes a chemical called melatonin that is designed to make you sleepy, but what happens if you just had spinal surgery? How are you supposed to sleep recovering and uncomfortable from surgery and perhaps from the new hardware in your back?

Post-op you may not feel your best, which is why sleep is an important part of that healing and recovery process and finding a comfortable position is mission critical.

Setting the Scene

We tend to think of sleep as a time when the mind and body shut down, but this is not the case. “Sleep is an active period where a lot of important processing, restoration, and strengthening occurs,” according to the Sleep Foundation. “Exactly how this happens and why our bodies are programmed for such a long period of slumber is still somewhat of a mystery. But scientists do understand some of sleep's critical functions, and the reasons we need it for optimal health and well-being.”

Generally speaking, the first few days after spinal surgery are going to be hard (we are not going to sugar coat it, but have no fear). But, there is that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

1. It's All About the Lighting

Since light can wake you, you may want to consider darkening the overhead light in your room when you are falling asleep. Consider hanging dark curtains to black out the room and diminish any colorful distractions. Even the light from a television or computer screen may make it harder to fall asleep. Research actually suggests that being exposed to blue light from your phones, laptops, or other electronic gadgets at night may prevent your brain from releasing melatonin, the hormone that tells your body it's time for bed.

2. Sleeping on Your Back

This may seem a little boring and not ideal, so try placing a pillow in-between your knees. This provides the cervical and thoracic spine with much-needed support, which may ease some of that post-surgery pain.

It’s also important to keep your arms at your sides, if possible. Having your arms under or over your neck or head may place pressure on your neck and shoulders and can eventually lead to possible complications.

John Hopkins Medicine Orthopaedic Surgery Division says in order to reduce your pain after spinal surgery, the best sleeping position is laying flat on your back or on either of your sides. Both positions decrease pressure on your lower back and spinal discs.

3. Sleeping on Your Side

Much like sleeping on your back, side sleepers should place a pillow between the knees to provide additional cervical support. Evidence suggests that habitually sleeping on one side over another may exacerbate muscle imbalance, enhanced back pain, and in select cases scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine. Sleeping on the same side also suspends the middle of your body between your hips and shoulders.
Finding sleep after having spinal surgery.Caption: By alternating sides, you will further enhance your spine's alignment — just don't forget about that pillow in-between your knees, which will keep your hips, pelvis, and spine aligned.

In order to alternate sides, you will need to change positions as you fall asleep or throughout the night. To do so without further injury, try to “log roll” into the new one. This allows your whole body to move versus just your torso. Only moving the torso may cause a twisting motion, which doesn't help your spine's alignment and can cause pain.

4. Sleeping on Your Stomach

Unfortunately, stomach sleeping does not support your spine's alignment and this sleeping position is not recommended following spinal surgery.

Do not sleep on your back after having spine surgery.Caption: Studies suggest that the worst position for sleeping is on your stomach due to the unnatural position of your neck, spinal alignment, and breathing.

If you are a stomach sleeper, start by lying on your side with a pillow by your stomach and then gently roll over using the pillow as a support. You are not totally on your stomach, but it does feel like it without damaging your spine.

5. Your Mattress Type Matters

Board-Certified physical therapist, Marleen Caldwell says to consider a well-made innerspring, foam, or Tempur-Pedic mattress to your innerspring mattress when dealing with the devil of chronic back pain. “If your hips are wider than your waist, a softer mattress can accommodate the width of your pelvis and allow your spine to remain neutral,” Caldwell offers. “If your hips and waist are in a relatively straight line, a more rigid surface offers better support.”

Plus, we haven't even mentioned the best part.

6. Pillows

Throughout this entire read, we've mentioned the act of supporting your spine's alignment a lot. The best way to ensure you're supported everywhere is to employ a ton of pillows — seriously. The more the merrier for any and all sleeping positions.

If you sleep on your back, make sure the pillow fills the space between your neck and the mattress in order to maintain your head in a neutral position.

If you sleep on your side, consider using a thicker pillow in between your knees. This will take the pressure off the rest of your body allowing you to feel at ease. You can always alter your sleeping positions and using additional pillows can keep your spine in the suggested neutral position. Add a pillow to both your left and right sides to cushion you in, which will also make alternating sides throughout the night a little bit easier.

If an incision was made around the cervical spine — your neck — you may be required to wear a cervical collar to bed in order to reduce the chance of excessive movement. Additionally, it may help to either sleep in a recliner (reclined sofa or chair) or place another pillow underneath your shoulders. And when you wake up, stay put. 

7. After Your Alarm Goes Off

You want to only hit the snooze button once. And don’t use that time to go back to sleep. Instead, stretch out your back before you ever leave your bed.

What to do after your alarm goes off.When you hit the snooze bottom and force your body to drift in and out of sleep, it actually interrupts your natural sleep patterns, which chip away at the restorative values of a good night’s rest.

You can do simple stretches from the comfort of your bed, which will also further aid in the healing of your vertebrae discs. The discs in your spine actually get their nutrition from movement, and since you just had spinal surgery, movement is necessary to promote recovery. 

But once you finish your stretching, don't hit the ground running either. You want to slowly get out of bed and begin your day, which is best done by log rolling. To log roll out of bed, you would log roll to either the left or right side of your bed, then use your opposite arm to prop yourself up. Once you’re at the edge, you can lower your legs and push yourself up into a standing position. And if you're body hurts, it's okay to stay in bed a little longer.

8. Listen to Your Body

For back pain, in general, sleeping may still be a difficult with or without surgery. If your body hurts, rest. Now that you know how to sleep correctly and how beneficial it really is for your road to recovery, hopefully you'll have many restful nights ahead.

If you're worried about sleeping following any surgery, talk to your physician during your pre-surgical consultation about these concerns and their recommendations.

The Dalai Lama said it first, Sleep is the best meditation.” And after all, you deserve some zen. So what are you waiting for?

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