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Neck Pain After Sleeping: Why It Happens & What To Do About It

Sleep Health · 03/16/20

Woman with Neck Pain - Neck Pain After Sleeping: Why It Happens & What To Do About It

Stiff neck, painful neck, crick in the neck…whatever your neck issue is, it’s time to do something about it! We want to set the record straight on neck pain after sleeping with this definitive guide so that you can get back to waking up pain-free.

The truth is, many of us experience a temporary stiff neck after sleeping at some point in our lives. If it’s only been a few days since the pain began, relax, it’s likely it will subside. However, if you have chronic neck pain or a crick that just won’t go away, we’re here to help you pinpoint what’s going on and what to do about it. 

Neck pain can be caused by a variety of factors, from excess strain to an acute injury like whiplash, and even a poor sleeping position. It can range from downright frustrating to fully debilitating and you shouldn’t have to live with either. Whether your neck feels “stuck” or is in a constant state of painful turmoil, deciding on a treatment plan is the first step towards recovery. 

Woke Up With Neck Pain? Here Are Some Possible Reasons Why

Do you remember how your neck pain began? Was it right after an injury, or did it sneak up on you over time? Chronic neck pain can stop us from sleeping well at night, leading to sleepless nights and stiffness the following day. Sleep is meant to be the time for your body to recover, not experience more pain. Here are some common reasons why you may be experiencing pain when you first wake up.

1. Wrong Sleeping Position

While it may seem innocuous, your sleeping position can play a role when it comes to the neck pain you are experiencing. In fact, research shows that up to 5 percent of new cases of chronic pain are triggered by sleeping problems. [1] If your spine is not in a neutral alignment while you sleep, your neck can acquire a “crick,” or stuck feeling that will result in a stiff neck after sleeping. You can also get neck pain from sleeping wrong. Below, find out what each of the sleeping positions means for your neck and how to sleep with a stiff neck.

  • Stomach Sleeping: Stomach sleeping is the worst sleeping position when it comes to your neck. It’s impossible for your neck to be a neutral position when you sleep on your stomach because you have to twist your head to the left or right to sleep. It may feel comfortable when you fall asleep, but this position can wreak havoc on your spine and cause a sore neck from sleeping wrong. Plus, it’s bad for your skin as one side of the face will carry the weight of your 11-pound head for hours.
  • Side Sleeping: Side sleeping can be very comfortable for many people. It is the preferred position of people who experience sleep apnea and it can aid insomnia and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Left side sleeping is particularly good for blood flow and breathing clearly at night. However, be wary as side sleeping can cause a pinched nerve if you don’t have the proper pillow to support your neck and shoulders. [2]
  • Sleeping on your Back: While not a very popular sleeping position — only eight percent of people sleep on their backs, experts recommend this position for neck health. [3] As your spine is in a neutral position with little strain on your neck, sleeping on your back can result in a restful night of sleep with no pain. [4] This position is also good for acid reflux as long as your esophagus is elevated above your stomach. The Yaasa Mattress has been selected by the SleepFoundation.org as the best mattress for back sleepers in 2020. Word of caution: this position is not good for people with sleep apnea as the tongue can block airflow.

Neck Alignment When Backsleeping - Neck Pain After Sleeping: Why It Happens & What To Do About It

2. Poor Sleep Hygiene

Your sleep hygiene may also play a part in your neck pain. Piling a mountain of pillows under your head to binge on Netflix for hours or check your phone before bed can contribute to chronic pain in the neck and other parts of your back. As tempting as it is to do these things, just say no! Keeping your spine in a neutral position will greatly reduce strain on your body while you sleep. Plus, keeping tech out of the bedroom can create a more restful sleep environment.

3. Improper or Uncomfortable Mattress

Do you have a lumpy old mattress that dips down in the middle? While this may seem comfortable, it’s time to toss it out! We spend about a third of our lives in bed sleeping, which is why it is crucial that you invest in the right type of mattress to help you prevent or at least manage your neck and shoulder pain. When your spine is not aligned properly because of your lumpy or sagging mattress, you are setting yourself up for neck and shoulder pain.

4. Wrong Type of Pillow for Your Neck

Like mattresses, your pillows are a factor in the health of your neck while you sleep. If you’ve been using an overstuffed pillow or one that is too thin, you could potentially be hurting your neck more than helping it. You should always make sure your neck is supported by your pillow, which often means having a taller pillow for your neck than your head. If your neck is not touching a pillow at all, that means it doesn’t have proper support.

5. Cold Air at Night

This is a less common problem, but nonetheless could be a source of irritation and even neck stiffness. Having cold air blowing on you while you sleep from a fan or vent could cause your neck to become tense, resulting in your waking with pain or discomfort. Consider the temperature of your room and be sure to turn the fan away from you while you sleep. [5]

How to Sleep to Avoid Neck Pain

If you’ve identified any of the above reasons as the cause of your neck pain, it’s time to change your sleeping environment and habits. How to sleep with neck pain? There are some simple swaps for you to try at home.

As we mentioned earlier, your sleep positions are important when it comes to your neck health. The best position for your neck is to lie on your back with your spine in a neutral alignment. You should avoid sleeping on your stomach as this will only make you twist your head to one side which can cause undue strain on the muscles.

Invest in a Better Mattress

If you’ve discovered that your sagging mattress is at the root of your neck pain, it’s time to throw it out and find one that is more supportive. Investing in a mattress that suits your medical needs as well as providing proper support can be a game-changer. 

When buying a mattress, consider your sleeping position. The type of mattress that you sleep on should complement how you sleep. For example, if you are a back sleeper, then sleeping on a firmer mattress will give you better support. Side sleepers, on the other hand, need a softer surface to help support the spine, hips, and shoulders. Supportive memory foam, as is used in The Yaasa Mattress contours around the body to protect the joints, making it great for any type of sleeping position.

Consider an Adjustable Bed Frame

You can also look into an adjustable frame, like The Yaasa Adjustable Bed, which you could use instead of a pile of pillows to prop your body up safely at night. This adjustable bed system has a one-touch flat sleep feature, so you can go from sitting upright to comfortably lying down for zero-gravity sleep in a matter of seconds. It works with most mattresses and has built-in luxury features like USB outlets and a backlit wireless remote with LED lighting so you can have everything you need at your fingertips. No straining necessary.

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Choose the Right Type of Neck Pillow

There are many different types of pillows available to alleviate neck pain and help you get a good night’s sleep. If your neck hurts after sleeping, it’s important to invest in the right pillow for your particular sleeping position. Correct pillow height is essential. Your pillow should be high enough to suit your particular sleeping position, supporting the neck. Here’s what pillow to get based on your sleeping position:

  • Back sleepers: Back sleepers should opt for a thin pillow so that your neck will follow its natural curve. You can also try a rounded pillow that will provide your head with adequate support for the neck. The Memory Foam Pillow is ideal for both back and side sleepers because it follows the contours of your head and neck and prevents your head from falling out of place. You can also try a cervical pillow, which is specifically designed to keep your neck in its natural curve when you sleep. If you can retain this position throughout the night, you will reduce the possibility of strained neck muscles because of the support the pillow provides. Correct cervical alignment plays a role in preventing injury, stiffness, as well as pain.
  • Stomach sleepers: Experts do not recommend this sleeping position. The position will further strain your neck muscles as your spine is not in neutral alignment when you lie on your stomach.
  • Side sleepers: Side sleepers need thicker pillows to ensure that the weight of the neck and shoulder is equally distributed. As we previously mentioned, your neck pillow should be a bit thicker than that for the head. Shredded foam pillows can provide you with enough firmness whether you are sleeping on your side or back as they contour nicely to the body. You can also try placing a pillow between the knees to align the spine even further. This may help reduce pain in the neck at night. [1]

Remember, the goal with any pillow is to bring your neck to its natural curvature as you lie down. Below is a brief list of the type of pillows that can help with neck pain…

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Pillows that can help with neck pain:

  1. Orthopedic pillows
    These pillows are specifically designed to follow the natural curve of your neck thus helping to prevent or alleviate neck pain while you sleep. 
  2. Cervical pillows
    Roll-shaped pillows called cervical pillows can be placed under your neck at night to help you maintain the natural curvature of your neck. 
  3. Memory Foam Pillows
    The Memory Foam Pillow is a dream if you suffer from any kind of neck or shoulder pain. It is moldable to your shape, so no matter where you need support, it’s there for you. It keeps cool, so you can turn off that blasting fan at night and has a soft luxury knit cover to provide a blissful experience while you sleep.
  4. Feather pillows
    Feather pillows are a common option for many people with or without neck pain. If you have neck issues, feather pillows can easily be shaped into comfortable support to your head and neck. Feather pillows offer less resistance than foam pillows. 
  5. Water-filled pillows
    Water-filled pillows can also be a good option for neck support. This type of pillow helps distribute the weight from your head and neck. You can customize it according to your needs.
  6. DIY towel pillows

Another way to get some neck pain relief is to place a small rolled towel under your neck to get more support in addition to the pillow under your head. The rolled towel fills the gap between the head and neck to maintain proper alignment and ease any pain. This can work while you are picking out your neck pillow, but it is not a great longterm option as the towel is likely to unroll during the night.

How to Treat Neck Pain from Sleep

So… how to get rid of neck pain from sleeping wrong? Let’s take a look at some common home remedies and therapies for neck pain from sleep. 

Use a Hot Compress or Heating Pad

Sometimes neck stiffness is caused by too much strain on the neck muscles while we sleep. This can cause blood flow to be restricted. One of the best ways to relieve stiff muscles and ease neck pain is to boost blood circulation by applying a hot compress to the affected area. You should apply heat for up to 20 minutes around 10 to 15 minutes before going to bed. [1]

Ice therapy

A hot compress may be your go-to solution when you are dealing with neck stiffness, but using a cold compress for an acute injury can help with the swelling. Place some ice cubes in the middle of a clean towel and wrap them up before placing them on the injury and leave for 20 minutes at a time. Make sure that you do not place ice directly on your skin as this can cause a cold burn. 

Get a Massage

Another soothing remedy for alleviating the stiffness in your neck is to have someone massage the affected muscle for you. Have your partner or a family member gently knead the muscles on your neck, shoulders, and back as these are the locations where stiffness is most likely to occur. Like heat, a massage also increases blood flow to the affected areas. Symptoms may abate as the blood circulation increases and the muscles begin to stretch. 

Female getting a Massage - Neck Pain After Sleeping: Why It Happens & What To Do About It

Keep Moving and Try Stretching

You should keep walking and moving to keep the muscles in your neck from becoming stiffer. If you are looking for pain relief from the stiffness in your neck, you might do some light stretching to ease the pain. Poor posture is one of the most common culprits of causing a crick in the neck and stretching helps to combat this. Here are some exercises to try:

Shoulder Rolls

  • To start, stand up straight and tall
  • Begin to roll your shoulders forward and backward 10x
  • Repeat rolling in the opposite direction 10x

Neck Stretch

  • Start in a standing or seated position
  • Turn your head to the right as far as it can go and hold for 15 seconds
  • Return to neutral
  • Turn your head to the left as far as it can go and hold for 15 seconds
  • Return to neutral
  • Repeat 3-4 times daily 

Shoulder Blade Stretch 

  • Stand in a neutral position
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together in the back, clasping your hands behind you if it doesn’t feel too strained
  • Hold for 5 seconds, then release
  • Repeat 10 times

Car Stretch

  • Seated in the car, make sure your headrest is aligned with the back of your head
  • Push your head gently backward into the headrest 
  •  Hold for 30 seconds

These simple, do-anywhere stretches can have a big impact on the health and flexibility of your neck if done on a daily basis. Flexibility works wonders to prevent injury, so we recommend these even if you don’t suffer from neck issues.

Gentle Yoga Class

You can also try a gentle yoga class for a more structured approach to stretching. Yin yoga is a wonderful, slow practice that can reduce muscle strain and increase flexibility. In a yoga class, you will be able to try stretches while in a safe place under the trained eye of your teacher. If you feel like you are in an uncomfortable position, ask for modification. A good pose to do on your own is the child’s pose position, a common beginner’s yoga pose that helps stretch your spinal column. View what this pose looks like here

Over-the-Counter Medications 

Taking over-the-counter painkillers, like ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen can be helpful in reducing neck pain. These will also aid headaches.

Water Therapy

Water therapy may also be a good remedy to help you reduce pain in your neck. Start by standing in a warm shower while doing some neck and shoulder stretches. The warm temperature of the water can help ease the swelling in your muscles, while your movements can spur good blood circulation in your body.

Go Ergonomic in Your Workplace

Whether at your home office or company workplace, you should consider making your work environment ergonomically friendly. You can start by adjusting your chair until you find a comfortable position with your feet pressed down on the floor and your knees a bit lower than your hips. You should adjust your computer so that it is at eye level, either proper up on a computer stand or a stack of books.  If you want to go a step further, you can invest in a height-adjustable desk. Invest in an ergonomic mouse and keyboard to minimize the strain in your wrists and arms.

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Try Physical Therapy 

If your neck strain is caused by an injury, physical therapy is likely to be recommended so that you do not develop chronic neck pain issues. Your physical therapy sessions will most likely include exercises for your muscles and joints to reduce stiffness and increase strength.

Visit a Chiropractor

Around eight percent of adult Americans seek chiropractic care each year for their pain, so this could be a solution worth looking into. In Greek, the word chiropractic translates to ‘hand’ (cheir) and ‘action’ (praxis), and this is basically what a chiropractor does. Using their hands, they perform adjustments on the joints. An adjustment is a sudden, controlled force that can loosen the painful joint and relieve tension. Adjustments on the neck are called cervical manipulation and they can reduce muscle spasm pain and pinched nerves. [6]

Limit your Smartphone Usage

The more you look down on your smartphone for long periods of time, the more strain you are putting on your neck muscles. If you are using your phone for business, make sure that you keep it at eye level. Squeezing your phone between your shoulder and ear can cause your neck to be strained, so use speakerphone mode or earbuds when talking instead.

Limit Your Cell Phone Use in Bed - Neck Pain After Sleeping: Why It Happens & What To Do About It

Consult your Doctor

Not all neck pain will disappear on its own with the help of at-home treatments. There are instances when seeking medical help is especially advised, particularly when you are dealing with severe neck pain that lasts. In this case, it is best to seek the professional advice and care of a doctor.

Other Common Causes of Neck Pain

If you’ve narrowed your neck pain down to not being caused by anything related to sleeping, it’s possible that one of the common reasons below is triggering the pain. Consult this list and ask a doctor about any questions or concerns you may have.

Acute Injury

There are multiple ways to injure your neck that typically involve a sudden movement or harsh impact. The neck is prone to injury during car accidents, which we refer to as whiplash. Whiplash is defined as any injury to your muscles, ligaments, nerves, or bones in the neck. It can cause pain, stiffness, and even dizziness, shoulder pain, and back pain. [7]

Extreme sports or bad falls can also push your muscles outside their normal range of motion into awkward positions that can damage the vertebrae. Sometimes, you may not even feel the impact of the injury until a few days later, so it’s important to take care of your neck during this period if anything has occurred that is out of the ordinary. 

Stress  

Stress is also a culprit when it comes to neck pain. Our muscles tense up when we experience stress, which can result in physical symptoms such as headaches and neck pain. Stress can also lead to poor sleep at night, which means your body doesn’t have time to properly heal from the activities of the day. 

Posture

Poor posture during the day, when sitting or standing can affect how you feel overall. When you are looking at a computer all day, if it is not at eye level, you could slowly be damaging your neck over time. This also applies to looking down at your phone.

Stiff or Weak Muscles 

Another possible cause of neck pain is stiff or weak muscles. If you wake up with neck pain, it is possible that your muscles themselves are stiff or may be weak. You can work with a physical therapist to help strengthen them with targeted exercises. A list of simple ones to try at home can be found here. 

Arthritis

Cervical spondylosis, or arthritis of the neck affects more than 85% of people over the age of 60. Generally speaking, neck arthritis is just a product of natural wear and tear on the spine as we age, which results in pain and stiffness. [8] 

Degenerative Disc Disease

As we age, the cushioning discs in our cervical spine start to break down. This can result in a stiff or sore neck. If the discs break down to the degree that they create nerve pressure, you can also develop weakness, numbness, and pain that radiates from your shoulder to your hand.

Muscle Spasm

A neck spasm can occur after an injury and also from the tension of stress, poor posture, or overuse. If your neck muscles are very tense, tight, and painful, it is likely that you have a muscle spasm. These can turn into headaches if not treated. [9]

Herniated Cervical Disc

A herniated disc is one of the most common causes of neck pain, particularly between the age of 35-50. When a disc in the vertebrae ruptures, the interior, gel-like substance escapes. This can result in neck or arm pain as well as tingling and numbness. Simple treatments for six weeks like rest and physical therapy are generally enough to heal a herniated disc. [10]

Pinched Nerve

When a nerve in your neck is damaged or compressed, it is called a pinched nerve. It can feel like pins and needles or weakness in the neck.

Heart Attack

Not everyone associates neck pain with having a heart attack, but it could be a symptom. If you experience pain flaring up in your neck accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, jaw or arm pain, you should seek immediate emergency care.

Meningitis

Meningitis is the result of an inflammation in the thin tissue that surrounds the brain as well as the spinal cord. If you experience a headache and fever in conjunction with neck pain, seek immediate medical attention as it could be a sign of meningitis.

Neck Pain: Symptoms to Worry About

Neck pain can occur alone or in tandem with other symptoms, like those listed below. These symptoms can be a red flag that you have a more serious problem, so seek medical advice from a doctor if any of these occur.

  • Headaches
  • Reduced head movements
  • Muscle spasms and tightness
  • Numbness and tingling in your arms and hands
  • Shooting pains in your arms and hands
  • Fever
  • Chest pains
  • Swollen glands
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Bladder or bowel problems

The Bottom Line

With tweaks to your sleep hygiene, mattress, and pillows combined with lifestyle changes like posture and stretching, the health of your neck will undoubtedly improve. If it doesn’t, this could be a sign of something more serious and you should seek immediate medical advice to get started on a more intense regimen of healing. Even after you have recovered, we highly recommend continuing to put into practice the tips listed above to help protect your neck from a future injury.

The health of your neck is precious, so take care of your body before the problems begin!

Resources:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/neck-pain/waking-up-with-neck-pain#causes
  2. https://www.seton.net/brain-and-spine-care/2017/06/20/pinched-nerve-causing-neck-pain/
  3. https://www.sleep.org/articles/best-sleep-position/
  4. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/say-good-night-to-neck-pain
  5. https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/neck-pain/how-treat-stiff-neck-after-sleeping
  6. https://www.everydayhealth.com/neck-pain/neck-pain-chiropractic-care.aspx
  7. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324070#causes-of-a-stiff-neck
  8. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/cervical-spondylosis-arthritis-of-the-neck/
  9. https://www.summitmedicalgroup.com/library/adult_health/sma_neck_spasms/
  10. https://mayfieldclinic.com/pe-hcdisc.htm

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