Sleeping with Sciatica: Overview, Tips, and Positions

Medically Reviewed By Gregory Minnis, DPT
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Sciatica describes pain in the lower back, buttocks, legs, and feet. It can feel like electricity shooting through these areas. This can make it difficult to get quality sleep. However, some sleeping positions can help. Sciatica, which is a symptom of nerve irritation, can result from the compression of the sciatic nerve outside of the lumbar spine, typically in the buttocks or posterior thigh.

Because lying down to sleep might aggravate the nerve even more, sleeping with sciatica can be challenging. However, certain exercises, stretches, and sleeping positions can help.

This article explores how to sleep with sciatica if you have discomfort while lying down. 

What is sciatica?

Young woman stretching in bed
Jimena Roquero/Stocksy United

As the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke explains, sciatica is a symptom that happens when something compresses the sciatic nerve.

The sciatic nerve is located in the lower back, and it extends through the middle of the buttocks and down through the back of the leg. This is why people with sciatica often feel shocks, burning, or jolts shooting down through the buttocks and down one leg.

Sciatica usually occurs in only one side of the body, but it is possible to have sciatica in both legs. 

What does sciatic pain feel like?

Sciatic pain can affect everyone differently. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) explains that sciatic pain can feel like:

  • electricity shooting down the leg
  • pins and needles
  • tingling 
  • a burning sensation
  • sharp pains
  • cramps

It can also cause weakness and trembling in the affected leg. However, the weakness is usually temporary, and it will resolve once you address the root cause of the sciatica. 

What causes sciatica?

Sciatica is not a condition. It is a symptom of something else causing the nerve to be compressed. For example, an injury to the discs in the lower lumbar spine or sacral region can lead to sciatica. 

The AAOS notes that sciatica typically has one of the following causes: 

  • pregnancy, from the weight of the uterus compressing the nerve
  • arthritis, which is more common with age
  • a herniated disc, which is most common in people under 40 years of age
  • a bulging disc 
  • bone spurs 
  • a spinal cord injury

Sciatica most often occurs in people in their 40s and affects up to 40% of individuals over a lifetime. Additionally, there seems to be some degree of genetic predisposition to sciatica. Not surprisingly, it occurs more often in people who have physically active jobs and who do activities that involve bending or twisting. 

Why does sciatica get worse in bed?

Sciatica can worsen when you lie down because being in this position puts more pressure on the nerve. This causes an increased sensation of symptoms. 

Helpful sleeping positions for sciatica relief

An article in the journal BMJ Open reports that the best sleeping position for reducing back pain and other symptoms in the back is a supported side-lying position. 

This means that if you have sciatic pain, the best sleeping position for you is likely on your non-affected side and using pillows for support.

You could use pillows for support while you sleep by: 

  • placing a pillow between your knees and legs
  • using a body pillow alongside your front or back
  • putting a pillow behind your lower back for support
  • resting on a pillow on your side

The key is to use pillows strategically to take as much pressure off of your spine as possible to reduce nerve compression and decrease pain. 

Sleeping positions to avoid with sciatica

It is best to avoid sleeping positions that can aggravate

symptoms related to the back. For some people, this can mean that it is better to avoid sleeping directly on the side and sleeping on the stomach.

That said, if you are comfortable sleeping on your affected side or on your stomach, it is usually fine to continue doing so.

Considerations while pregnant

For pregnant people, sciatica may not fully resolve until after the pregnancy is over. This is because the pressure or shift in the center of gravity from the fetus during pregnancy can cause the nerve compression associated with sciatica. 

Although sciatic pain may not completely resolve until your pregnancy is over, there are some strategies you can try to help with the pain.

To help relieve sciatic pain during pregnancy, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests: 

  • sleeping with a pillow between your knees and legs
  • using a pregnancy pillow for sleep and rest
  • gently stretching, especially the glutes
  • using a heating pad on the lowest setting to prevent burns
  • applying a cold pack
  • doing physician-approved exercises
  • swimming
  • using a maternity support girdle to support your belly
  • using a lumbar support pillow when sitting 

It is always important to talk with your doctor when you experience back pain before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Back pain that occurs with other symptoms, such as bleeding or fluid leaking, could indicate preterm labor. 

When to contact a doctor for sciatica

It is important to contact a doctor when you develop any new pain. Back pain has many different causes, and finding the right treatment will depend on properly identifying the root cause.

If you have sciatica, your doctor may prescribe treatment that depends on what is causing the sciatic pain. That could include anything from resting and stretching to undergoing physical therapy or surgery. 

Also, try to avoid lying still for too long, as this can make the pain worse. Talk with your doctor about the best ways to stay active and manage your pain. 

Summary

Pain from sciatica is something that many people experience in their lifetime. Sciatica results from the sciatic nerve being compressed. This can have many causes, including a bulging disc in the spine, arthritis, and pregnancy. 

Sleeping with sciatica can be challenging because certain sleeping positions put more pressure on the nerve. Your doctor may recommend that you sleep with a pillow between your legs if you sleep on your side or underneath your knees if you sleep on your back.

Speak with your doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms of sciatica. Treating the issue will depend on finding out exactly what is causing the pain. 

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Medical Reviewer: Gregory Minnis, DPT
Last Review Date: 2022 Feb 25
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