The Benefits and Risks Associated with Sleeping on the Floor

This article was made to provide as much information as possible about floor sleeping to help people decide whether they want to change it up in their sleeping routine or potentially save money they would normally have spent on a new bed.

Written by:

Tamara Smith

, Sleep Researcher
Last Updated: Tue, October 1, 2019
Fact checked by:

Marko Jevtic

, Sleep Specialist

Buying a bed or a mattress can be an incredibly expensive and frustrating pursuit. Picking the wrong mattress, for example, can lead to a lot of wasted time testing, returning and replacing it for a more comfortable product. While the selection of sleep-related products keeps getting bigger and bigger each year, and new and more advanced mattresses and beds keep cropping up, sometimes the best approach involves looking towards the past, or towards other cultures.

Sleeping on the floor is definitely not something done by a majority of people, at least in the United States. However, a lot of countries treat sleeping on the floor as a part of their tradition, something their ancestors would do by default. People who are interested in sleeping on the floor often receive support and advice from people of these cultures, whether directly or indirectly. Those of you wishing to adopt this sleeping habit probably have a series of questions about long-term health consequences and potential benefits. This is where we come in – this article was made to provide as much information as possible about floor sleeping to help people decide whether they want to change it up in their sleeping routine or potentially save money they would normally have spent on a new bed. Let’s get into it.

The Effect of Floor Sleeping on Your Body

As you might imagine, sleeping on the floor wasn’t a matter of choice back in ancient times. The benefits we got from sleeping on the floor had much more to do with survival and pain avoidance than with our quality of life or cultural experience. The sleeping positions used by men and women of old times, especially nomadic people, were more oriented towards helping the sleeper detect threats, whether it’s through a good sightline (assuming they wake up) or ears that aren’t pressed against anything for optimal hearing. Additionally, these people had to deal with potential heat loss and general comfort-related obstacles, and their sleeping positions functioned as a way of alleviating these problems.

One of the main elements of any sleeping position is pain relief, which is mainly associated with comfort and healthy posture. No matter how healthy or ill you are, there is always an optimal way to position yourself during sleep if you want to avoid back or neck pain or relieve existing back pain. Every mattress out there is designed to support and comfort a specific target demographic, usually relative to their sleeping position. Sleeping on the floor is a bit different, though. It’s less about adapting your sleeping surface to your body – it’s often the other way around.

Sleep experts that have extensive knowledge when it comes to sleeping on the floor tend to agree that one of the main benefits is the neutral back posture you’re essentially forced into. Spine alignment is something you would hear about during mattress hunting as well, as it plays a crucial role in avoiding many health-related concerns in the long run. The spine is the anchor for your nervous system, so any defects or bad posture habits can potentially affect many other systems in your body. For this reason, mattresses are often “aimed” at people who sleep in a specific position, since they can engineer the firmness to support the spine perfectly in that position. When you’re sleeping on the floor, your back and ribcage position themselves properly, without any real input on your end. This has clear health benefits, including a more comfortable rest. Another idea is that soft sleeping surfaces tend to limit the person’s movement as their body is “sucked into” the mattress. This movement is considered essential for maintaining a healthy sleeping posture and getting enough deep sleep.

However, there are reasons as to why everyone doesn’t sleep on the floor regularly. Most of these reasons stem from habits formed during upbringing, but there are many theories about floor sleeping that circulate in medical communities. One such theory claims that sleeping on the floor can cause harm to your joins over time, especially if your sleeping position doesn’t change very often. The idea is because the floor doesn’t budge under you while you sleep, almost all the weight is placed directly onto your joints – which isn’t a good thing. It doesn’t have any drawbacks if you do short-term floor sleeping (which can be a technique for dealing with back pain, and thus is temporarily done by certain people), but the risk increases over time.

This theory comes into direct conflict with an idea proposed by Michael Tetley in a study about instinctive sleeping postures. According to this study, certain sleep positions when a person is sleeping on the floor can help “fix” joints that aren’t functioning properly. It’s hard to imagine that floor sleeping simultaneously helps and hurts your joints, which brings us to an important fact to consider when researching this topic for yourself. You see, there hasn’t been enough research on the topic of floor sleeping for us to make any guarantees about how it all works. As a result, a lot of these theories remain just that – theories, and hypotheses, with patient testimonies and educated guesses being the most concrete hints to work with.

Who Should Avoid Sleeping on the Floor?

Because the floor is the hardest surface you can sleep on, it is not ideal for everyone. Some conditions prevent people from getting any real benefit from sleeping on the floor and can cause such a choice to carry increased risks. While the prospect of floor sleeping can be tempting from a cultural standpoint, the main focus is still the health, and some groups of people simply shouldn’t ever sleep on the floor if they can help it. Here’s a list of factors that make sleeping on the floor a bad idea:

–          Cold sleepers are one of the main groups that should avoid sleeping on the floor. Heat rises, which means that the floor is often the coldest part of any room – especially rooms without carpets. People who already get cold during the night need to invest extra resources in creating a good sleeping environment on their floor, especially if it’s hardwood during the colder seasons. If you still wish to sleep on the floor, make sure you have warm sleeping clothes and heat-preserving bedding to avoid health risks.

–          People with back pain or other problems that prevent them from efficiently standing up and sitting down whenever they want to are another demographic that should avoid floor sleeping. Falls can cause serious injuries no matter how old the person is, so people who would need assistance to stand up aren’t suitable for sleeping on the floor.

–          Older adults tend to experience the above-mentioned back pain, but other symptoms of aging can also make it hard to justify sleeping on the floor. They have thinner skin, and tend to have less muscle and fat overall, which exposes their joints to much more strain than usual. As a result, they take falls very poorly, and they will almost always find it very uncomfortable to sleep on the floor, even with some soft bedding arrangements like a comfortable sleeping bag.

As a rule, if you have any condition that affects your joints, muscles or causes physical discomfort of any kind during the night, make sure you consult your primary care physician before attempting to sleep on the floor. Let them know what you’re trying to achieve because their advice is crucial when it comes to arranging a floor sleeping plan. Worst case scenario, they may talk you out of the idea, but it’s for your own good. Not everyone should sleep on the floor, and a doctor will be able to tell you whether it’s a suitable sleeping habit for you specifically. If none of these risk factors are present, and you get your doctor’s approval, you can go ahead and think about how to set things up.

How Does One Sleep on the Floor?

As with many things in life, preparation is key. Because sleeping on the floor comes with potential risks and drawbacks, you shouldn’t rush into it blindly. There are steps you can take to ensure your floor sleeping is as comfortable as it can be, and minimize the chances of joint pain, back pain or neck pain in the long run. While you will have to invest some money to cover things like sleeping bag pads and similar comfort-improving articles, it’s worth every penny. Besides, the total cost of all these things is still nowhere near what a high-quality mattress would cost, so your wallet probably won’t take a huge hit.

Before making any purchase, you should examine your sleeping habits – specifically, your preferred sleeping position(s). Knowing this lets you plan ahead for relieving specific pressure points and purchasing adequate bedding. Here’s a list of sleeping positions and how you can improve your comfort depending on which ones you prefer:

–          Side sleeping is the most common sleeping position by far, and depending on your habits, you may either curl up in something resembling a fetal position or stretch your limbs out. Normally (i.e., when sleeping on a mattress that supports you properly), side sleeping comes with many health benefits such as improved brain function and blood circulation, or back pain relief. However, sleeping on the floor complicates matters a bit. Because there is no “give” when you sleep on the floor, your entire body weight ends up resting on one side of your body, specifically your shoulder, calf, and hip. This isn’t good for your joints and general comfort levels, so side sleepers are advised to seek out soft and flexible padding to put underneath themselves while sleeping. This approach lets your spine achieve proper alignment, and lets you reap the standard benefits of side sleeping in general.

–          Back sleeping takes second place when it comes to popularity, but it tends to be the preferred position for those who like to sleep on the floor because there are no spine alignment issues and pressure points that bear a huge burden when it comes to your body weight. However, this doesn’t mean that back sleeping is without its share of problems. People who snore or deal with sleep apnea are advised to avoid this sleeping position unless they’re connected to a CPAP machine. The one part of your body that sustains any significant pressure during back sleeping is your lower back, so you may want to put a pillow under your knees to alleviate potential lower back pain.

–          Stomach sleeping is not recommended in almost any situation, and this applies to floor sleeping as well. Simply put, the downsides are not worth risking, and the main way to prevent neck pain and joint compression is to use pillows under your body, which can be uncomfortable to sleep on in general, leading to greatly increased sleep onset latency. If possible, try to change your sleeping position to something else, or avoid floor sleeping altogether.

Creating a comfortable sleeping surface isn’t very difficult, but the sweet spot varies from person to person, which makes it hard to give specific advice. Browse your local stores and check online storefronts for products where you’re given ample testing time. Nothing is worse than being stuck with an uncomfortable piece of bedding equipment you specifically purchased for comfort. You want to look into various floor mats (such as tatami mats), as they are known to provide refuge from the cold, especially during colder seasons when your floor is uncomfortable to even walk on without socks. Mattress toppers and sleeping bag pads provide similar benefits, usually adding cushioning and comfort to alleviate the uncompromising firmness of the floor. If all else fails, a high-quality blanket (or five, so you can wash them without running out) does wonders in helping you sleep comfortably. Shop smart, and don’t hesitate to return uncomfortable products.


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