How to Sleep When Your Damn Back Won’t Stop Hurting

sleeping with back pain

Why is it that in our 20s, we could sleep anywhere—on our parents’ couch, on the floor of a friend of a friend’s apartment after a concert, in a crappy hotel room—but once we hit our 30s, we can’t even sleep in our own bed comfortably? Welp, back pain happens to most people at some point or another as we age, our friends at the Mayo Clinic tell us. Most of the time, it isn’t serious, and will go away within a few weeks (phew). Until then, there are a few quick ways to get relief.

Stop sleeping on your stomach. Sorry, stomach snoozers. When you’re sleeping face-down night after night, it can begin to stress your lower back and neck. Try sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees, or on your back with a pillow under your knees. And if you absolutely must sleep on your stomach, try taking the pillow out from under your head and put it under your pelvis instead.

Switch out your mattress and pillow. While there’s no special pillow or mattress that will magically take your pain away, it’s possible that the pillow or mattress (or both) that you’re using is keeping your back out of alignment as you sleep. Channel your inner Princess and the Pea and pay attention to the way your body is aligned with your current setup. Is your neck cranked too far up? Is your mattress too mushy, causing your spine to sag? Switch things up and see if it helps. (Check out our picks for the best pillow for every sleeping position.)

Pay attention to how you sit and stand during the day. If your back only hurts at night, it doesn’t necessarily mean your bed is causing the pain. If you spend a lot of time slouching over a desk, or standing and walking with bad posture, you could be creating unnecessary strain on your back that builds up and gets worse at night, the Mayo Clinic notes. Pay close attention to the way you sit and stand during the day, making sure to change positions regularly and sit in a chair and desk that promotes good posture. 

Take an NSAID. Even if your back is aligned, inflammation in the vertebrae and surrounding muscles can still cause intense pain. Taking an over-the-counter NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) like ibuprofen can take the edge off just enough for you to drift off.

Try capsaicin cream. If you’re into natural remedies, give capsaicin cream—yep, the same capsaicin that makes chili peppers so hot—a try. A 2016 University of Michigan study found that, for people with lower back woes, capsaicin reduced pain more than a placebo. How does it work? After a few applications, the body's chemical pain messengers begin to deplete, causing the nerve fibers in that area to transmit fewer pain signals. Rub the cream on the painful areas of your back before bed, then make sure to wash your hands carefully. (Just like when you're cutting up hot peppers for your famous chili, this stuff burns.)

If you still can’t sleep, see a doctor. If it’s been a couple of weeks and your back pain is still keeping you up, it’s time to see a back specialist. They’ll help you get down to the bottom of what’s causing your pain and figure out the best treatment option, like physical therapy or prescription medication. 

The Best Exercises for a Bad Back

screen shot 2020 05 14 at 6 31 35 pm

Freelance Editor

From 2015-2020 Lindsay Champion held the role of Food and Wellness Director. She continues to write for PureWow as a Freelance Editor.