How to Get Comfortable Sleeping with Hip Pain
Learn why what you sleep on and how you sleep could be aggravating your hip.
May 4th, 2022 •
If you’ve ever experienced hip pain, it will be no surprise to learn that people with painful hips are more likely to sleep poorly. A study published in the journal Medicine went so far to suggest that hip pain and sleep problems were so intertwined that “patients with poor hip metrics should be screened for sleep disturbance.”
Sleep is a basic human need, like eating, drinking, and breathing. When sleep is compromised and we experience sleep deprivation, it affects our physical and mental health, makes us prone to injury, and increases our risk of death, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
There are many causes of hip pain, but there are also steps you can take to reduce the pain you feel at night so that you can enjoy more restful sleep.
Bursitis is a painful condition that causes inflammation in the bursae, the fluid-filled sacs that cushion the bones, tendons and muscles near your joints. The hip is one of the most common places for bursitis to occur, however bursitis can also affect the shoulder, elbow or even the knee. Hip bursitis is felt either on the outside of the hip or near the groin. The pain usually starts off sharp and intense before fading into an overall ache. The most common causes of bursitis are repetitive motions or positions that put pressure on the bursae, injury or trauma, and inflammatory arthritis.
Sciatica usually occurs when the sciatic nerve becomes pinched by a bulging or herniated disk in your spine. In rarer cases, the pain can result from a tumor putting pressure on the nerve or damage to the nerve caused by diseases like diabetes. The location and intensity of pain depends upon where the injury or damage is along the nerve and how bad the damage is. When it affects the piriformis muscle, it can cause a dull, sore, numbing, jolting, throbbing, hot, or stabbing pain around the buttocks or hip that can radiate down the leg to the foot. The intensity of pain can vary from a slight nagging pain to severe and debilitating one.
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Being pregnant puts a lot of extra pressure on the spine and hips, and that pressure only increases as the pregnancy term moves closer to the due date. This can cause a dull pain in the hips and can also lead to sciatica.
Exercise is a great way to stay in shape. But overdoing it can lead to injuries that can bench you for weeks—or longer. Exercise-related hip injuries are usually caused by overusing the iliopsoas muscle, which flexes the hip. This can strain or inflame the tendon attached to the iliopsoas, leading to hip tendonitis.
Osteoarthritis is a joint disease that occurs when the joint cartilage and underlying bone breaks down over time. This decreases the protective joint space between bones and can cause bone to rub against bone. This not only causes pain and stiffness in the joints, it can also force damaged bones to start growing outward and form bone spurs. Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint but is most often developed in weight-bearing joints such as the hips. Osteoarthritis gradually worsens over time, and can become debilitating without treatment.
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Often associated with overdoing exercising, hip tendonitis—or hip flexor tendonitis—affects the iliopsoas muscle in the hip. Athletes who suffer from hip flexor tendonitis often describe a “clicking” and pain in the hip while running, walking, or kicking.
Nearly a quarter of all people over the age of 60 experience hip pain, leading many to think that hip pain is just a side effect of growing old. There are many causes for age-related hip pain including arthritis, injuries, falls, tendonitis, bursitis, and overuse. Finding relief often requires diagnosing the cause of the pain.
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There’s no doubt that inflammatory pain can disrupt sleep. But studies show that the relationship between the two is reciprocal. A sleep deficit can also reduce the body’s tolerance to pain and worsen inflammation, leading to a seemingly endless cycle of pain and sleeplessness.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to protect itself from harm. Inflammation is caused by pathogens like bacteria, viruses or fungi; external injuries like stubbing your toe; exposure to chemicals or radiation; or certain diseases like cystitis or dermatitis. Inflammation can also cause chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Studies have found that people with sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea have higher inflammatory markers. People who suffer from chronic pain frequently have higher inflammatory markers as well as impaired sleep.
If you suffer from hip pain, you probably spend a lot of time at night tossing and turning trying to find a more comfortable position to sleep in. Strategic use of pillows can help take pressure off your hips so you can sleep more comfortably whether you’re a side sleeper or a back sleeper.
Side Sleeping with a Pillow Between Your Legs
Most people prefer to sleep on their sides, but this can be especially taxing on the muscles, tendons, and bursa around the hips and pelvis, and aggravate nerve-related conditions like sciatica. For relief, lie on the side that isn’t in pain. Then place a pillow between your knees and ankles. Experiment with pillows of different thicknesses to find the size that reduces strain and pain on your sore hip.
Related: Best Mattresses for Side Sleepers
Back Sleeping with Pillow Under Back
Sleeping on your back is the best option for most sleepers because it distributes body weight and puts less strain on the lower back. It also puts less pressure on sensitive body parts like the hips and shoulders. One way to find more comfort is to place a thin pillow under your lower back at the natural curve.
Back Sleeping with Pillow Under Legs
Another way to relieve tension through the back and buttocks as well as the front of the hips is to place a pillow under the knees. This helps to align the hips and spine, and is a great option for people who suffer from hip flexor tendonitis or sciatic nerve pain.
Related: Best Mattresses for Back Sleepers
There are other ways you can help prevent hip pain at night. Let’s take a closer look at some options:
Low Impact Exercise
If you suffer from hip pain, the thought of exercising might make you cringe, especially if your injury was caused by overexercising. But exercise is beneficial for everyone, in particular those with chronic hip pain. Exercise works the muscles and tendons that provide stability and strength around the hip joint. Steer clear of high impact exercises, like running or tennis, which can cause or worsen hip pain. Instead, focus on low-impact exercises such as spinning or bike riding, swimming or water aerobics, or walking.
Ice the Affected Hip
Putting ice on your sore hip can reduce inflammation and swelling, and help deaden pain. If your pain is intense, try icing it four or five times a day for 10 to 20 minutes each time. Use an ice pack, plastic baggie filled with ice, or a bag of frozen vegetables. Place a cloth between the ice pack and your skin to protect against irritation.
Gentle stretching exercises can help strengthen hips, improve mobility in the hips, and relieve pain. The best time to do stretching exercises is when you’re feeling less pain and stiffness in your hips, such as immediately after a warm bath when your muscles are relaxed. You may feel temporary discomfort while stretching, but if it aggravates your existing hip pain or causes new or lingering pain, ease up.
Avoid Sitting for Long Periods
If you suffer from hip pain, chances are you feel stiff and sore upon rising. That’s because, when you sit, your lower spine and hip joints flex. The pain is usually worse when sitting on chairs that sit lower to the floor because it causes greater hip flexion. Some solutions include raising seat height to ensure the hips are slightly higher than the knees or gently reclining the back of the chair.
Replace Your Mattress
Mattresses without enough support or pressure relieving qualities can make your hip pain worse and prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Consider replacing your mattress with one made with memory foam or latex, or a hybrid made with combination of one of those materials and innersprings. The best mattresses for hip pain are ones made with memory foam or latex because they cushion the body, relieve pressure at the shoulders and hips and do a good job of keeping the spine aligned.
When heat is applied to inflamed tissue, it increases blood flow to the area and makes connective tissue more flexible. This can temporarily decrease joint stiffness and pain, and reduce inflammation and fluid retention. For relief, try applying a heating pad or hot pack to your sore hip two to three times a day for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.
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