January 24th, 2013 at 10:06 am
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Could sleeping position affect elders’ health?

by Dorian Martin

Like many older people, Dad has numerous physical challenges. As I’ve mentioned before, he has chronic lower back pain due to stenosis and also has been diagnosed with sleep apnea. Dad also occasionally fights acid reflux. And like many older people, he can’t get a good night’s sleep.

Aching for sleep

Which brings me to a big question: Could his choice of sleeping positions be causing some of his difficulty in getting a good night’s rest? A new story in The Wall Street Journal suggests that the position you take at night can aggravate pain and, thus, prevent your body from physically recovering from its aches and pains. Just sleeping in the same position every night might be the cause of pain, according to Mary Ann Wilmarth, chief of physical therapy at Harvard University Health Services.

In a position for sweet dreams

So what are the best sleep positions for elders? Some questions remain, for example, about the use of pillows, but there are some clear indications for certain health issues.

1. Back pain. Recommendations vary according to the sleeping preference of the person with back problems:

  • On the side: Individuals who sleep on their side should use a pillow between their knees and thighs, the Mayo Clinic suggests. This adjustment can help support the upper leg, thus limiting the potential for the top knee and thigh to slide forward onto the mattress and cause rotation of the spine.
  • Face up: Those who tend to sleep on their back should put a pillow under their knees and a small rolled-up towel under the small of their back to maintain the lower back’s normal curve, which could limit lower back pain.
  • Face down: Sleeping on the stomach can be especially hard on a person’s back, but it is possible to make this position more comfortable by placing a pillow under the pelvis and lower abdomen.

2. Acid reflux. Dr. Lauren Gerson notes in the Gastroenterology & Hepatology journal that head-of-bed elevation has been effective in improving symptoms of night-time acid reflux because “stomach contents containing acid will more likely reflux into the esophagus while patients are laying flat without the beneficial effect of gravity.” This type of elevation has been linked to fewer and shorter episodes of acid reflux, faster relief when there is extra acid, and fewer reflux symptoms.

3. Sleep apnea. Sleeping on one’s back may play a role in sleep apnea for some individuals, who might eliminate or limit airway blockage by sleeping on their side, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA). One technique to help someone learn to sleep on his or her side is to pin a sock with a tennis ball to the back of the pajama top. However, ASAA warns that positional therapy of this type primarily works only for mild cases of sleep apnea.

A change may do them good

So if you are a caregiver for an elder who has any of these issues and who also is having difficulty sleeping, perhaps a change of position might help them get a better night’s sleep. For more ideas, see my other blog posts on topics like these:

Sleep is part of self-care for caregivers

Caregivers need to recharge their batteries at night, especially after a day of caring for loved ones suffering from chronic pain or memory disorders such as dementia. Kathryn Kilpatrick writes about how fatigue might even affect the memory and cognition of a caregiver: “If a caregiver is not sleeping well over a period of time, they can feel like they are walking around in a fog, and when that happens many of the details can easily escape their attention.”

That’s one more reason why we hope you will take good care of yourself. If you haven’t already, please submit your caregiving story — just 300 words — for our Share Why You Care Contest. You could win a gift card or a spa day as a token of our esteem for all the good work that you do, every day (and night).

Posted in Caregiving, Health | 1 Comment »
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One Response to “Could sleeping position affect elders’ health?”

  1. Sarah

    What an interesting article! A lot of the information you present makes sense and I believe I have heard it before, but never put it into context. I believe I read somewhere that the older we get the less we sleep at night, even though our requirements for sleep increase. Some of the problems with sleeping (in older adults) are what you mentioned in your article. So hopefully this helps the older adults and their caregivers. Even us younger adults have sleeping issues due to physical ailments and can benefit from this article. Thanks for sharing!

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