Aside from chronic muscle and bone pain disorders, the most common cause of neck pain resides in poor posture. Those who sit and walk with hunched shoulders, or lift heavy objects with their back instead of their legs will eventually have some form of neck pain.
Typically, pain arises from soft tissue tension around the cervical spine, leading to soft tissue strain and muscle spasms resulting in spinal stenosis and disc degeneration.
All of your everyday movements –bending down to tie a shoe, lifting your child, lounging on the couch –can lead to misalignment in the spine and eventual muscle spasms in the neck, but one of the biggest culprits to neck pain is sleeping in the wrong position. Even the best mattress and pillows can’t prevent neck pain if you’re in a wonky sleeping position.
The body, including soft tissue and bone, needs time to rest and regenerate from a long day. Healing typically happens during sleep when the body falls into a state of relaxation. Proper rejuvenation is out of reach if the body cannot rest.
If your neck pain intensifies in the mornings, chances are the pain originates from your sleeping position and/or the lack of support to critical areas on the body during resting hours.
The Best Sleeping Position For Neck Pain
When looking for the best sleeping position for neck pain, consider the main ways for sleeping: back sleeping, stomach sleeping, and side sleeping. Do some of these positions work better than others? Find out below.
Science and sleep experts across the globe have agreed that back sleeping comes with multiple benefits. Back sleeping fosters a healthy, neutral spine position.
In this position, there are minimal extra pressure areas as your weight is more evenly distributed across your bed. Plus, sleeping with your face turned up stops stomach acid from making its way up your throat, known as acid reflux. This issue is something that side sleepers and stomach sleepers are prone to experiencing.
Anna’s Linens’ Research Department states only 10% of people sleep on their backs, despite it being the better sleep position.
Now, let’s discuss the most popular sleeping position: side sleeping.
In this position, one side of your body bears your entire weight. Even though this sleep style is generally healthy, it does comes with complications.
Side sleeping can lead to pressure building up. This pressure can cause inflammation, preventing the soft tissue from repairing and may even break down healthy cells during the night. These pressure points have a tendency to cause pain. This is especially true when it comes to the cervical portion of the spine. Typically, the best mattress for side sleepers is of medium firmness because it’s supportive enough to maintain healthy spinal alignment but soft enough to alleviate pressure points under major joints.
When a sleeper lays on their side, a gap forms between the head, neck, and the mattress. To rectify this problem, a pillow of appropriate height and firmness should be placed under the head and up against the shoulder. This pillow should allow the head to remain in a neutral position.
As long as the appropriate pillows are placed in the right areas, side sleeping endures as a good sleeping position.
For some individuals, the side position could be more healthy than back sleeping. These individuals are typically advised by a physician overseeing a condition such as pregnancy.
Based on our research, we recommend side sleepers sleep on their right side. Medical Daily states, “sleeping on the left side can put a strain on internal organs like the liver, lungs, and stomach, but also while reducing acid reflux. Pregnant women are advised to sleep on their left side for optimal blood flow.”
Another study by the American College of Cardiology concluded that those diagnosed with congestive heart failure should avoid the left side to prevent ventricular dilation, elevated filling pressure, and reduction in the cardiac output.
If you’re a stomach sleeper, the chances of having a crick in your neck are greatly increased. Mainly due to the turned head and the stressed spinal pose. Stomach sleeping is the least healthy sleeping position out of all the sleeping styles.
If you think about this sleeping style in comparison to the supine position, you can see the difference in the spine alignment almost immediately.
The spine has a natural curve. This curve allows us to maintain balance and protects the spinal cord and the main artery responsible for blood transportation between the lower and upper halves of the body. When sleeping on your stomach, the spine gets forced into a stress-pose with the back arched and the neck turned off to the side.
In this stretched posture, the spine becomes virtually flat and twisted at the portion closest to your head.
Imagine the pressure build-up between the vertebrae. The gelatinous disks cushioning the vertebrae are put under extreme pressure in this pose.
Eventually, these rubber disks will erupt, causing the vertebrae to rub together. Vertebrae rubbing could lead to spinal cord pinching, which has been recorded as an extremely painful sensation. With the neck being arched and twisted for the better part of the night, the cervical portion holds more risk of receiving these injuries.
This sleep position can even limit blood flow, which can cause dizziness upon climbing out of bed. Talk about the effects of poor posture!
Our suggestion to alleviate these issues would be to change how you sleep. Of course, if you don’t want to change your sleeping position, there are other ways to minimize damage. Getting your hands on a pillow with the appropriate height could make a world of difference.
A thin pillow will limit the overreaching arch in your neck. Another pillow placed under the hips will help put the natural curve back into the spine. Both will ward off future lower back pain from coming on to quickly.
Sleeping without a pillow will help stomach sleepers achieve spinal alignment as it always the body to rest in a more neutral position.
Will Changing My Sleep Position Help My Neck Pain?
Neck pain, compared to lower back pain, is the second-largest sleep-related injury affecting up to 60% of the population. This means that statistically, neck pain stands as a very common issue. It’s amazing to think the problem can be fixed with a pillow or a simple change in sleeping habits.
But, the question isn’t the ease of which you can stop your neck from straining, it’s why you should go through the trouble of putting a stop to your neck discomfort.
Unless the pain is severe, records show no one goes to the doctor for what they consider simple matters. And yet, pain-ridden spines happen to be the number one reason people see a doctor.
Sometimes these painful symptoms do not present themselves as neck strain. They come off as headaches.
- 80-90% of patients reporting headaches had a pinched nerve in their neck. The majority of these patients slept on their stomachs and sides.
It’s better to have a problem resolved before it gets too serious.
Harvard Health Publishing reported a study including 4140 healthy men and women who were listed as having sleep issues, including sleep apnea and sleep disturbances, and those without sleep problems. In this study, people that reported average to severe sleeping problems were more likely to develop chronic musculoskeletal pain in the period of a year; meanwhile, the population that reported little to no sleep disturbances were projected to have no discomfort while sleeping within the same time frame.
The conclusion drawn was that hindered sleep stops muscles from relaxing and recuperating, leading to muscular pain. And those that experience pain have their sleep disrupted, which leads to more pain as hindered sleep causes strained muscles, leading to greater pain. These two truths come together to make a ruthless cycle of pain-sleep disruption.
This cycle applies to everyone. If you are an individual that experiences neck strain often, there is a good chance that the issue, if not taken care of, will continue and become more severe as time passes.
Switching Sleep Positions
If you have neck pain and sleep on your stomach, you might consider developing side or back sleeping habits. This might be difficult, seeing as it can be hard to break old habits. But, we do highly recommend sleeping on your back if you can.
It does take a lot of effort and time to switch sleeping positions. However, your day-to-day health will thank you for it.
To take you through the process, we will first discuss the stomach-to-side sleeping transition and then the side-to-back sleeping transition.
For those that sleep on their stomach, investing in a body pillow will be the easiest and most comfortable way to transition to the healthier side sleeping style. We suggest a U or C shaped pillow as the best pillows for the job. In this example, we will be using a U shaped body pillow to describe the technique.
(The technique can be easily applied to the C-shaped body pillow as well.)
After you’ve obtained your body pillow, position yourself on your side in between the pillow’s two limbs. From here, place your head at the curve and loop your arms around the portion of the pillow in front of you. Then, place the lower pillow’s limb between your knees.
Congratulations! You’re in a perfectly aligned side sleeping position.
In this position, the pillow corrects your neck and hip alignments, and provides a back and front alignment to stop you from flipping over into your preferred sleeping position.
Body pillows can be expensive. So, just in case dropping $70 on a body pillow isn’t in your budget, it can be replaced with multiple pillows.
A body pillow would be useful in this transition too. Once again, the body pillow can be replaced with multiple pillows for those on a tight budget, with the understanding that it may not be as effective.
First, lay down in the U-shaped body pillow with your head resting on the center of the arch. After, take an end section of one of the pillows limbs or a wedge pillow and place it under your knees.
This pillow arrangement will discourage you from turning back to your preferred way of sleeping and secure your position on your back.
The Best Pillows for Neck Pain
We recommended finding pillows that support the head, neck, hips, and back and/or front. A good pillow fills the gaps between your body and the bed. The use of a head pillow higher under the neck and lower under the head will amend the strain in your neck and allow muscles and tendons to slacken. A recent study found people with chronic neck pain often find relief simply from switching their pillow to a latex or polyester alternative.
As a general rule, the center of your nose should be in alignment with your belly button. This will stop your neck muscles from straining through the night.
Pillows that are too high and stiff will result in the neck staining over the course of the night, leading to a stiff neck. Research shows that an incorrect pillow height can make it hard to breathe, resulting in sleep disruption.
Pillows that are too flat will cause the neck to fall back, which causes the neck to extend, leading to muscle and ligament straining.
Even if you already sleep in the healthiest position, the wrong pillow can still cause prolonged neck strain. As suggested by Harvard Health Publishing, a back sleeper should have a rounded pillow with a flat cushion to support the natural curve of your neck into a relaxing, neutral position.
These specialized pillows can be bought to support the curve of your neck. Or, a little DIY action can do wonders as well. Just take a rolled-up towel and insert it into the pillowcase where your neck will rest.
Feather pillows will conform to the neck. They flatten over time and need to be fluffed often. However, they are well rated as pain-relieving pillows.
Memory Foam Pillows
Memory foam pillows also contour to the neck and head. They come in a variety of firmness options and have been known to alleviate discomfort in the neck and shoulders. They’re high maintenance but have a longer lifespan than most other pillows. In addition to memory foam pillows, many sleepers have found pain relief by switching to a memory foam mattress, as well.
These pillows are large oversized pillows that come in several different shapes: I-shape, U-shape, C-shape, L-shape.
Many have found that body pillows relieved symptoms of pain and made sleeping more comfortable. This type of pillow is highly recommended to side sleepers, pregnant women, elderly, athletes, those recovering from surgery.
General Tips for Alleviating Neck Pain
Sometimes a change in pillows won’t be enough to reduce neck pain.
Even though the spine has a reputation as an essential and wondrous structure, it’s also known as a biological nightmare. The simplest moments can throw this delicate instrument out of alignment. Even with the correct sleeping posture, it won’t save you from neck discomfort if you don’t take care of your spine throughout the day.
Here are a few quick and helpful hints to protect yourself against chronic pain:
- Limit the use of your phone. Anything that requires you to look down for more than 15 minutes at a time should be limited.
- Light exercise and neck stretches will increase your spinal health. A morning stretch after sleep prepares you for the day and gets your blood moving. Simple neck exercises will loosen the neck and prepare it for rest as you sleep.
- Seek help for chronic neck pain. If you have chronic neck pain (pain that lasts more than 12 weeks) seek the help of a therapist for medical advice and to incorporate physical therapy exercises to alleviate the pain.
- Work on a computer should be done sparingly. If you are someone who does computer work for a living, raise up the computer’s height until it reaches eye level. This will minimize the time you spend looking down.
- Learn proper posture and carry your weight evenly. Learning to stand and sit properly will transition naturally into all other aspects of your life, resulting in healthy alignment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it better for your neck to sleep without a pillow?
You might benefit from sleeping without a pillow if you’re a stomach sleeper. Stomach sleepers tend to sleep with their necks at an awkward angle, which using a pillow can worsen. We strongly recommend that side, back, and combination sleepers continue sleeping with a pillow.
How do you get rid of neck pain from sleeping wrong?
If you wake up with a sore neck, try applying an ice pack to your neck to reduce inflammation. Later, you might want to try a heat pad or a hot bath, or give yourself a neck massage. You might also want to wear a neck collar for a few hours, to give your neck muscles a chance to rest.
What is the best pillow for side sleepers with neck pain?
Side sleepers often sleep best with a thick pillow that bridges the gap between their neck and the mattress—a gap widened by their shoulders. A good pillow for a side sleeper should be around 3 to 5 inches thick.
You might want also want to consider a memory foam pillow for side sleeping if you suffer from neck pain. Memory foam is one of the best materials for relieving pain and pressure points.
How should I sleep with neck and shoulder pain?
Apply a heat pad or ice pack to ease pain and stiffness in your neck and shoulders about half an hour before you lie down to sleep. Once you’re in bed, try using two pillows, one for your shoulders and one for your neck. You can also try sleeping with a pillow underneath or between your knees to take pressure off your lower back and reduce the overall pressure on your spine.
What is the healthiest sleeping position?
Side sleeping might be the position that offers the most health benefits. It keeps your windpipe unobstructed, lowers pressure on your heart, and can help your brain clear out waste more effectively.
That’s not to say back sleeping is a bad position—it might be the best position for keeping your spine in neutral alignment. Stomach sleeping is often considered to be the least healthy sleep position. If you’re a stomach sleeper, you might want to try switching to your back or side.
Did You Find Your Next Pillow?
We’ve briefly discussed what types of pillows you should use according to your sleeping position and declared the best sleeping position for neck pain. If you’re looking for something more, take a look at our other bedding and mattress guides.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.