Elevating the legs for sleep is a simple concept. It refers to lifting the legs higher than they would typically be. Leg elevation can be carried out during the day. For example, by using a footstool, or sitting with your legs up against a wall. Many people put their feet up as a way of relaxing. But what about at nighttime?
If you’re like most people, you probably sleep lying flat in bed. Whether you sleep on your back, front, or on your side, most people sleep with their bodies all at the same level. Other than the head being propped up by a pillow, of course.
But just because this is the norm, is it necessarily the healthiest sleep position. In recent years, medical professionals have come to understand the many benefits of sleeping with the legs elevated.
In this article, we’re going to discuss how elevating the legs can help with certain medical conditions and ailments. We’ll look at the pros and cons of sleeping with legs elevated so that you can decide if it’s right for you. Finally, we’ll examine the different ways in which you can elevate your legs at night.
Is It Healthy to Elevate your Legs?
You may be wondering whether elevating your legs is a healthy way to sleep. After all, the most common method of sleeping is entirely flat. According to the journal Sleep, most people sleep on their front, on their back, or their side.
Each of these positions typically involves lying flat, without any body part elevated (except for the head on a pillow). So, why should you deviate from this?
It might surprise you to know that not everybody is best suited to sleeping flat. Lying flat at night may be causing your body some problems without you even realizing it.
It’s thought that elevating your legs while sleeping could help with the following conditions:
- Edema (swelling of the legs)
- Recovery from leg injuries
- Blood circulation problems, and the prevention of related complications
- Relieving back and neck pain
So, without further ado, let’s examine each of these in detail.
What is the Purpose of Elevating Legs for Edema?
Edema is the medical term for swelling in the legs, caused by a buildup of fluid. The main symptom of edema is puffiness of the skin, causing the calves and ankles to appear enlarged. The skin itself may seem stretched and shiny.
It’s normal to experience some level of swelling in the legs towards the end of the day. However, for some people, the swelling reaches uncomfortable levels. It can cause stiffness, pain, and discomfort.
Although edema can be a symptom of a serious underlying health concern, the most common causes of edema are:
- Immobility, caused by the inability to walk
- Standing for long periods of time – common in retail workers and assembly line workers, for example
- Sitting for long periods of time – common in those who have office jobs
If you’ve spoken to a medical professional about edema, you may have been advised to start elevating your legs. But why does it help?
According to Harvard Medical School, elevating your legs encourages accumulated fluid to disperse throughout the body. It can also improve blood flow in your legs. Together, these mechanisms work to reduce swelling.
Keeping your legs elevated as you sleep is an excellent way of preventing, and treating, edema. Sleeping with feet higher than the head can prevent fluid from collecting in your legs overnight. Wearing compression stockings can also help, as can sticking to a low-salt diet.
Why Elevate Legs After Injury?
Elevating your legs can also help you recover faster from leg injuries. Such injuries may include:
- Fractures, also known as breaks. They can range from a small crack to the bone being broken completely in one or more places.
- Dislocated joints. If you’ve dislocated your knee, ankle or hip, it means the bone has popped out of place in the joint.
- Sprains. A sprain refers to a torn or over-stretched ligament (a piece of tissue connecting two bones or cartilages).
- Strains. Strains are sometimes colloquially called “pulled muscles.” They are similar to sprains, except the damage is in a muscle or a tendon (which connects bones and muscles).
Of course, the first thing to do after such an injury is to visit the local emergency room. There, they’ll treat your injury the best they can.
In the case of a fracture or dislocation, you may end up with a cast or splint. For a sprain or strain, the doctor will likely provide you with a compression bandage.
The Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Sports and Exercise Medicine recommends elevating legs for recovery. This is for two main reasons.
Keeping the leg elevated can help to reduce swelling, which is common after injury. Swelling often contributes to pain and creates an uncomfortable throbbing sensation.
It also helps to prevent movement of the affected limb. After an injury, resting the affected body part is very important.
Elevating the affected leg at night is just as important as during the day. While you’re healing, it’s important to discourage swelling and unnecessary movement as much as possible. Along with elevation, you can also apply ice to the injury to further reduce inflammation.
Can Sleeping with Legs Elevated Improve Circulation?
The heart muscle is extremely strong. Its purpose is to pump blood throughout the whole body, constantly, for many decades. For the most part, it does a great job of keeping the circulatory system healthy without any intervention from us.
However, certain medical conditions and lifestyles can lead to the reduction of blood flow to certain parts of the body. The legs are the most common area for circulatory problems to develop.
You’re particularly at risk of developing circulatory problems if you:
- Stand or sit for long periods of time
- Are overweight
- Are pregnant
- Are older
- Have a family history of circulatory problems
If your legs have poor circulation, you may notice pain, swelling, numbness or tingling. You may also develop patches of discolored skin. Over time, poor circulation can lead to unsightly spider veins, varicose veins, and even blood clots.
The first thing to do if you suspect you have poor circulation is to visit your doctor. They’ll be able to confirm it, and potentially recommend medications that can help. However, treating poor circulation is possible at home, too.
According to Dr. Clifford Sales of the Vein Institute of New Jersey, elevating your legs is one of the most effective ways you can improve your circulation. It helps to encourage accumulated blood to move through your legs and back into your body.
Sleeping with your legs elevated helps to maintain healthy circulation all night long. After a long day at the office, it can help to take the pressure off. Along with this, you should also elevate your legs periodically throughout the day.
Can Elevating your Legs Relieve Back Pain?
Back pain can be very uncomfortable. According to WebMD, around 4 in 5 people will experience back pain at some point. Back pain can make it difficult to complete all manner of daily tasks. Not to mention, it’s distracting and uncomfortable.
There are many different causes of back pain. Some of the most common include:
- Sciatica (nerve irritation)
- Sprains and strains
- Skeletal abnormalities, such as scoliosis
- Ruptured disks (cartilage cushions between the vertebrae)
If you don’t know what’s causing yours, it’s best to allow a doctor to assess you. However, most back pain is “nonspecific,” meaning there isn’t one identifiable cause. In these cases, changing how you sleep could do wonders.
A study in the Work medical journal found that sleeping position can significantly affect daily back pain. Lying flat on your back in bed can actually put unnecessary pressure on your spine.
This is because the spine isn’t naturally straight – it’s curved in multiple places. Sleeping on your back forces the spine to lie flat against its will.
This is where leg elevation comes in. When you rest with your legs up, it helps your back remain in a more natural position. It reduces pressure and supports the natural spinal curve.
This means that by sleeping with legs elevated back pain can be significantly reduced. For an even more pronounced effect, sleep with a pillow under the small of your back, too.
What Are the Disadvantages to Sleeping with Legs Elevated?
So, now we’re familiar with the many advantages of sleeping with your legs raised. It can be an excellent option for people with various circulatory and spinal problems, as well as injuries.
However, if we’ve looked at the advantages, it’s only fair to consider the disadvantages too. Are there any drawbacks to sleeping with your legs elevated? Can it do you any harm?
1) Numbness and Pain
If you aren’t used to sleeping with your legs elevated, there’s a chance it could cause your legs to become numb. It may even cause you a little pain. This is particularly a risk if you inadvertently cross your legs while sleeping, or otherwise put pressure on your legs.
You may also experience numbness if you leave your legs elevated for too long. Or, if you prop your legs up on something which is too hard or an awkward shape.
Why is this? It mostly comes from putting pressure on nerves. Many people believe that numbness comes from blood circulation being “cut off,” but this isn’t so.
Your legs, like most of your body, are covered in nerves which process sensation. If you compress, or “pinch” a nerve, it may cause numbness or pain. You may also experience paresthesia or “pins and needles.”
If you experience numbness, your best bet is to stand up and walk around for a while. This may be hard at first. If your legs are both completely numb, ask someone to support you. Once you’ve been moving for a while, the feeling will come back.
2) Disturbed Sleep
Sleeping with your legs propped up may disturb your sleep at first. This is because it can be hard for our bodies to get used to sleeping in a different position. You may find that you wake up a few times throughout the night.
You may contort yourself into odd shapes, or slip off of your leg support pillow. In your sleep, you may even try to lie flat again, as it’s what you’re used to.
This may feel frustrating to deal with at first. After all, getting a healthy night’s sleep is important. Repeated awakenings throughout the night can significantly reduce sleep quality.
If this is happening to you, you may experience:
- Grogginess upon waking in the morning
- A lack of energy
- Periods of excessive sleepiness during the day
- Forgetfulness and confusion
- Difficulty concentrating
Don’t worry, though – this is only temporary. Persevering throughout this initial learning curve is important. Once you’ve been sleeping with legs elevated for a while, it’ll start to feel natural. You’ll soon get used to your new nightly position and will start sleeping soundly again.
Lastly, there is a small chance that elevating your legs for long periods of time may cause dizziness when you stand up. This effect, if it happens to you at all, is only temporary.
When you sleep with your legs elevated, it causes more blood to accumulate in your upper body than usual. This is a good thing, as it prevents blood from pooling in your legs, thereby improving circulation. The blood vessels in your upper body may expand in response to this, to lower the blood pressure (called vasodilation).
When you stand, blood will flow back to your legs. If you stand too quickly, you may experience temporary hypotension (low blood pressure).
This means that you may feel dizzy for a brief period of time. Don’t worry, though – within moments the dizziness will pass completely. To prevent this from happening, lower your legs for a few minutes before you stand up in the morning.
Fortunately, the disadvantages of leg elevation are all short-term and temporary. These effects will all pass once your body is used to sleeping in the new position.
How to Elevate Your Legs at Night
By now, you’ve learned the benefits associated with elevating your legs. Although there are some small disadvantages, the benefits outweigh the costs. Whether you suffer from back pain, edema or have injured your leg, then it’s worth a try.
So, how do you achieve leg elevation while sleeping? There are four main ways of propping your legs up at night. Let’s go through each of them now, and discuss their pros and cons.
1) Pillows Under Your Knees
Placing pillows under your knees in bed is the most basic way of elevating your legs. It may seem rudimentary, but it gets the job done. By placing a pillow under knees, circulation can improve just as much as if you’d used specialist equipment.
So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this method?
- It’s easy, taking only seconds to set up.
- Pillows are widely available and cheap if you need to buy extras.
- It’s a great option for traveling, as you’ll find pillows anywhere you stay.
- Certain pillows may not offer a great amount of support. Soft, down pillows won’t support your legs as well as firm ones.
- As you sleep, the pillows may slip out of place. You may naturally roll in and out of different sleeping positions and wake up to find the pillows on the floor.
- As pillows vary in thickness and size, it can be difficult to find the right level of elevation.
2) Leg Elevation Wedges
Leg wedges work in the same way as pillows, but they’re much sturdier and firmer. As they’re specially made for elevating the legs, they offer just the right amount of support.
They’re firm enough to hold your legs in place without hurting. They come in various shapes and sizes to suit everyone.
- They offer more support than pillows while taking up roughly the same amount of space.
- They’re designed to produce the correct amount of elevation, without the need to make adjustments.
- They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles to choose from.
- Leg elevation wedges are more expensive than pillows. They can range from roughly $20 to $100 each. The cheaper ones are usually not as good quality.
- Like pillows, they may slip out of place while you’re sleeping.
- Some of them aren’t wide enough to accommodate both legs when you’re sleeping on your side.
3) Mattress Raisers
Mattress raisers are the next step up from leg elevation wedges. Rather than sitting directly underneath your legs, these are designed to be placed underneath your mattress.
The result is that the bottom end of your mattress is raised entirely. If you’re wondering how to elevate your legs while sleeping on your side, the mattress raiser is a good option.
- Unlike leg wedges and pillows, mattress raisers aren’t likely to come out of place during the night. You can be sure your legs will remain elevated all night long.
- As they raise the entire mattress, you can sleep on your side, and your legs will remain elevated.
- As they’re kept underneath the mattress, they aren’t noticeable to the eye and won’t get lost or damaged.
- They can be quite expensive, even more so than leg elevation wedges. Mattress raisers can range from around $40 to $150 or more. This is because they’re larger, and are made to support the weight of the mattress.
- If you sleep with a partner, they’ll be affected by a mattress raiser. If they don’t want to elevate their legs, you may have a problem.
- Most mattress raisers are quite shallow, and can’t raise your legs very high. They’re good for more of a gentle inclination than a steep one.
4) Adjustable Beds
Adjustable beds are the gold standard of leg elevation. These are typically designed for people who have trouble with getting in and out of bed, though it can be used by anyone.
Adjustable beds provide the option to raise and lower the head and foot of the bed. Some are adjusted manually, whereas others are electric and work via remote control.
- Using an adjustable bed, you can completely customize your level of elevation, from a slight incline to a steep one.
- The inclination is permanent until you decide to change it. It’s perfect if you have chronic circulation problems.
- Some adjustable double beds can be adjusted separately on either side. This is handy if your partner prefers a different elevation to you.
- If you travel, you’ll be back to square one – you can’t take your bed with you. You’ll likely need to purchase a wedge as well, to take with you.
- Unfortunately, adjustable beds are expensive. Typically, they range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. As always, the best quality options are the most expensive.
When Should I See a Specialist?
By now, you know all the advantages of sleeping with your legs elevated.
To recap, elevating your legs while you sleep:
- Reduces swelling in the legs (edema).
- Aids with recovery from leg injuries, such as sprained ankles.
- Improves circulation, and helps to prevent vein problems.
- Helps to soothe back pain, by relieving pressure.
You can do this by propping your legs up, elevating your mattress or sleeping in an adjustable bed. Although there can be a few side effects, they are temporary and short-lived. For most people, elevating the legs at night has many benefits and few downsides.
Depending on your medical condition, you can now make an informed choice as to your sleeping position. If you follow our advice, you’ll soon notice the benefits of raising your legs while you sleep.
However, if you aren’t sure whether you should elevate your legs, or think that your condition is getting worse, speak to a medical professional. They can examine you personally and can offer you customized advice tailored to your situation.