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Neck Pain While Sleeping? Find the Root Cause and Get Rid of Neck Pain (& Back)

There are many possible reasons for suffering from neck pain that keeps you up at night. Some of these reasons might be beyond your control, like stiffness or pain that comes with age or a health-related condition.

Your choice of pillow and sleeping position can also lead to uncomfortable neck pain that affects your sleep, and luckily these things can be changed.

As it turns out, many of the factors going on in our environment when we sleep can contribute to neck pain so it is important to pay attention to pinpoint the source of your pain.

According to Harvard Health, awareness of our sleeping positions and proper pillows can help us avoid and manage neck pain while sleeping. They also suggest that sleep disturbances may play a role in chronic musculoskeletal pain, including pain in the neck and back. Also read our best pillows for stiff neck pain and sore shoulders resource page to learn more.

The primary root causes of neck pain and stiffness are:

  • neck pain can be age related: medical conditions, stiffness
  • badly chosen pillow: too flat or high depending on how you sleep
  • sleeping position: sleeping on the belly vs back or side
  • improper sleep: sleeping on a plane, in a chair, etc.

Can a Pillow Cause Neck Pain?

A woman with neck and shoulder pain

The best pillow is designed to keep your spine in a neutral stress-free alignment.

Yes. A badly chosen pillow can cause neck pain, making it difficult to sleep well at night and causing you to wake up feeling stiff. Spine-health recommends that you find a pillow that is the right height and firmness for your size and preferred sleeping position.

Finding the perfect pillow is a tricky balance. If it is too high or firm, your neck will be at an awkward angle and won’t be able to relax. If your pillow is too flat, your neck will likely be too flat or straining downwards, which isn’t any good either.

Whichever way you sleep, you want the curve of your lower neck to be protected and your head straight on your shoulders to protect your spine. Sleeping with your head turned or at an angle will cause stiffness and probably make any pre-existing neck pain worse.

How to Stop Neck Pain from Sleeping Wrong

Sleeping on your stomach commonly results in neck pain, neck stiffness and neck headaches.

If you are certain that you neck pain is happening because of how you sleep somehow, the first step is to figure out the root cause so you can address it. In addition to your pillow, your sleeping position can also have a lot to do with sleep-related neck pain.

The best positions to sleep for people who have neck pain are on your side or on your back, provided you have a proper pillow. Sleeping on your stomach is not recommended because it interferes with the natural curves of the spine with your neck in a vulnerable, twisted position.

Making changes to your pillow and sleeping position can be essential for long term relief from sleep-related neck pain.

Other things to look out for are drafts or drops in air temperature during the night that can cause the muscles to tighten up. If you like to sleep with the window open, for example, you might want to check the weather before bed and keep your neck covered with a blanket.

Sleeping with A Fan

Some people argue that cool air can’t cause neck pain, but it can make a preexisting condition worse. If you like to use a fan at night it is okay, just make sure that the air is not fixated going right on you.

Another way to safely sleep with a fan on and avoid neck pain is to cover up your neck with bedclothes or blankets. This will protect your neck from stiffening up in the cool breeze.

How to Sleep with Back and Neck Pain

Woman sleeping on a supportive pillow

Sleeping on your side or your back will prevent poor alignment of the neck and upper back.

If you suffer from back or neck pain that is having a negative impact on your sleep, do your best to sleep on your back or side. It can be hard to change preferred sleeping patterns, especially since we move throughout the night, but aligning your neck with the rest of your spine will help get rid of your pain.

Start by making sure that you aren’t sleeping on your stomach when you go to sleep and eventually the habit should break.

Stomach sleeping is bad for your neck and spine. If you can’t help it, try using a relatively flat pillow or no pillow at all. If you choose to sleep on your stomach you can also put a pillow under your hips and abdomen to support the curve of your lower spine.

If you or someone you know suffers with back pain as well as neck pain when they sleep, there are options for you too. If you sleep on your back, placing a pillow under your knees can take pressure off the back. A pillow between the knees can have the same effect if you tend to sleep on your side at night.

If you find yourself falling asleep upright, on trains, planes, or falling asleep in your chair at night watching TV, horseshoe pillows can be a big help. These pillows will help prop up your neck if you are falling asleep in an uncomfortable position and avoid you waking up unable to move.

Conclusion

When it comes to sleeping with neck pain, body positioning and buying a good pillow are essential. Ideally, your pillow should be rounded to support the curve of your neck, your head kept level with your spine so everything is supported in a straight line. This way, your neck will be properly supported and the muscles will be able to safely relax while you sleep.

Feather or memory foam pillows can help by providing better shaping and support for people with neck pain without being too firm or becoming flat during use.

Keep in mind other factors like the breeze or physical reasons that your neck might be hurting. If the problem persists after making these changes you can always go see a doctor to rule out any other causes for your neck pain.

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