Have you ever injured yourself while you were sleeping? I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that story. Someone showed up at my office in pain and when asked how it happened, their response was, “I don’t know. I guess I just slept wrong.”

Have you ever wondered what it means to “sleep wrong?” How is it possible that you can injure yourself when sleeping when you have been sleeping successfully your entire life?

If you think about it, as an adult, you are probably putting more thought and care into your sleep than you ever did when you were a kid. Have you seen how kids fall asleep?

I have 3 kids. I used to take pictures of the random ways and places that they fell asleep. It was always amazing to me, and if I’m being honest…it made me laugh. One of my favorite sleep pictures is of my oldest son. When he was barely as tall as the sofa, he fell asleep leaning up next to it. That’s right…he fell asleep standing up!

Yet none of my kids have ever come to me complaining about pain from sleeping. Not one time have any of my kids told me that they “slept wrong.” I never had a kid tell me that while I was in practice either.

That doesn’t mean it never happens to kids, but it seems to be very rare. Adults are a different story. Adults wake up with pain all the time. Some adults injure themselves while sleeping on a regular basis. Why is that?

The shortest explanation is age. It stinks to get old, and a lot of people just leave it at that. But that’s not the whole story. Sure, if you have ever injured yourself sleeping you are probably over the age of 30. But if the only explanation is age, there isn’t anything you can do about that. That’s sort of depressing.

Thankfully, the reason people injure themselves while sleeping isn’t exclusively age, which means there are things you can do to keep it from happening. Let me explain.

When dealing with physical injuries, there are two main factors at play: the strength of the structure and the amount of force applied to that structure. If the structure is stronger than the force, no injury occurs. If the force is greater than the structure, injuries occur.

For example, I broke my foot while playing neighborhood football when I was a kid. In that case, the bone in my foot was the structure. The GIANT kid who stepped on my foot was the force. The force applied to my foot was greater than the strength of my bone. As a result, the bone broke. If my bone had been stronger than the force applied to it, my bone would not have broken.

The same principle applies to your spine (or any other part of your body that you may injure while you are sleeping). Your spine is made up of bones, ligaments, tendons, discs, and muscles. Anytime there is a force that is greater than the strength of those structures, your spine is injured and you experience pain.

This concept is really easy for people to understand when the force applied to their body is great. If you fell down a flight of stairs, you wouldn’t wonder why you injured your back. It’s obvious. The forces applied to your body while falling down stairs is much greater than the strength of various structures of your spine. That makes sense.

This concept becomes much harder for people to understand when the force applied to their body is small. That’s why we wonder how in the world can someone injure themselves while sleeping.

Anytime someone is injured when a small force is applied to their body (i.e. sleeping), that is an indication that the injured structure was already weak. That means if you injured your back while you were sleeping, your back was already weak before you ever went to bed.

That’s why most kids and young adults don’t hurt themselves while they are sleeping. The forces applied to the body while sleeping are minor. The average kid and young adult typically does not have the underlying problems that us crusty old adults have. Unless a young person happens to roll out of the top bunk onto the floor, they aren’t likely to experience enough force while sleeping to cause an injury.

What does all this mean to you? Well, people who don’t understand how they can injure themselves “without doing anything” will often address their immediate pain but overlook any underlying problems that lead to their injury. If you ignore the underlying problems, they typically get worse. Going forward, you are more likely to injure yourself while you are sleeping, not less. That stinks!

If you understand that there are underlying weaknesses/problems that lead to you hurting yourself while you were sleeping, you can start addressing those issues. Regardless of your age, those problems can improve. As a result, you will be less likely to injure yourself while you are sleeping.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help you identify specifically what your underlying issues are. The point of this article isn’t to diagnose and treat your injuries, but to help you understand that there is something you can do about those random injuries that seem to happen while you are sleeping.

For most people, correcting their underlying issues will take a combination of home care and professional care. Some people may need to start stretching or do some exercises to improve their posture. Others may need to get regular spinal adjustments for a little while or schedule a few appointments with a massage therapist.

If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your chiropractor. They will be able to give you much more specific advice as to what you can do to not only feel better now but also strengthen your body and stay out of pain in the future.

Jerry Kennedy
Jerry Kennedy

Chiropractor, Jesus-follower, father of 3, meme wizard, podcast host, and founder of Rocket Chiro, a place where chiropractors can learn to decrease their business stress, and become the trusted, go-to chiropractor in their area.