Many people have a preconceived idea that sleeping at a weird angle or with the incorrect mattress can cause back issues and spinal pain. However, few people are able to explain why this is.
How the Spine Supports the Human Body
The spine consists of bones (known as vertebra) and discs (cushions in between the bones). The vertebra helps to give the spine its shape as well as mobility through the facet joints while the discs act as shock absorbers. The spinal column is an extremely important structure housing within it the spinal cord with nerves going to the arms, legs, bladder and bowel as well as serving as sites of attachment for the ribs and pelvis, which in turn house important internal organs such as the heart and lungs.
It has become apparent that, in a society that is increasingly reliant on technology, the effects of spine misalignment when doing everyday activities can be severe. In addition, with the current pandemic situation, increasingly more people are attending work and school from home, and are at their desks for extended periods of time.
This makes it difficult to maintain good posture and subsequently can cause spine misalignment. However, with the regular adults expecting to get about six to eight hours of sleep every night, it is also clear that sleep is an important period which can affect the alignment of the spine.
Global Alignment and Local Alignment of the Spine: What Is It?
According to Dr. Mash, there are vital differences between global and local alignment when it comes to spinal position.
Global alignment refers to the positioning of the head and pelvis in relation to the spine while local alignment refers to alignment of an individual’s vertebrae with respect to one another. Each of these can cause their own issues. For instance, scoliosis, a condition where the spine curves sideways, can happen due to global alignment problems. Spondylolisthesis, another spinal condition where the vertebrae slips out of place, is an example of a local alignment problem.
“During sleep, if one experiences spinal misalignment, it will not just cause issues to the spine but may result in pain and other symptoms; making it hard for one to sleep comfortably,” shared Dr. Mash.
“If you don’t sleep in the right posture and the alignment is off for six to eight hours while you’re sleeping, your muscles and joints will ache,” he added.
Further explaining the structure of the spine, Dr. Mash shared: “The spine is not a single bone but made up of many small joints and disks. If they’re not properly aligned when sleeping, it can lead to neck pain, mid back or even lower back pain.”
When this malalignment goes on for a prolonged period, it can lead to more serious problems.
Choosing the Right Type of Mattresses and Pillows for Good Sleep
With so many products such as pillows and mattresses in the market that boast claims of spinal support, we are honestly spoilt for choice. But can they be trusted?
Dr. Mash noted that the market has indeed expanded in recent years and shared that he believes they could be worthwhile investment when chosen correctly.
“These days, there are so many more options compared to 10 years ago. I do believe that a good mattress and a good pillow can go a long way to minimize or prevent neck aches or back pains.”
Dr. Mash further added that mattresses should have a good mixture of qualities and must not be too soft or too hard.
“If you get a mattress that is too soft, your body will contort into a ‘funny’ position and that’s going to make you wake up with body aches and pains. For pillows, they should generally provide good support for the neck,” Dr Mash emphasized, sharing more about how these products can do your body good if chosen correctly.
Do Bad Habits Contribute to Spinal Misalignment?
When asked if bad habits indeed contribute to spinal misalignment, Dr. Mash acknowledges that many sleep disorders occur due to bad habits. However, they can be mitigated.
For instance, those with a partner can make it a point to look out for each other’s posture from time to time; pointing out any bad habits such as slouching when sitting or lying in an unnatural position while sleeping.
“Building good habits and maintaining a conscious awareness of the position of your back when you sleep (or sit) is important as it can help prevent back aches” Dr. Mash shared.
“Sitting on a comfortable chair with a good back support can also help to relieve the stress from the low back,” he added. “However, scientifically, standing is actually much better for our discs in the lower back.”
On the last point, Dr. Mash also talked about standing desks and how they should be used if available.
When asked if there is anything else that can be done for better back support, Dr. Mash shared: “Some supplements, such as calcium and vitamin D are things that can actually help to prevent osteoporosis, a condition where patients have small little compression fractures that can lead to a hunchback.”
Effects of Spinal Misalignment
If left untreated, spinal problems often compound over time and can lead to problems affecting various areas of the body such as the nerves and rarely even the lungs.
According to Dr. Mash, diagnostic scans such as CT scans or MRI are often used to gain a better view of what is wrong. Alongside physical examination, treatment plans can be determined accordingly on a case-by-case basis.
With that said, Dr. Mash revealed that the silver lining is that 80 to 90 percent of the time, most spinal misalignment issues do not require surgery. Instead, simple measures such as medications, physiotherapy and sometimes temporary use of braces, can often solve the problems of neck or back ache.