By Austin Meadows
Updated March 18, 2021
Neck pain is a common problem, with approximately one in three people (1) experiencing it at least once a year. Although neck pain is often harmless and can resolve on its own, the risk of it becoming chronic increases with age.
The causes of neck pain (2) can be unknown, but are often related to posture or other body mechanics. Neck pain with no known cause affects about two-thirds of people, typically in middle age. Neck pain from known sources, such as injuries from whiplash, can heal within days or weeks, but becomes chronic in approximately 10% of people. Chronic neck pain (3) can also result from conditions such as arthritis or a bulging disk in the spine.
Unfortunately, an aching neck can also result from the simple act of sleeping (4). Certain sleep postures, types of pillows, or sudden movements in bed might lead to a stiff neck in the morning. Neck pain can also make it more difficult to sleep, affecting sleep quality and duration.
Although occasional neck pain is a nuisance, chronic neck pain can more seriously affect a person’s quality of life (5). For this reason, scientists have been investigating ways to help prevent neck pain from occurring in the first place, including while sleeping. We’ll cover how neck pain impacts sleep, how sleeping can cause neck pain, and how to help eliminate and prevent neck pain.
How Does Neck Pain Affect My Sleep?
People who experience chronic pain, such as neck pain, seem to have a higher likelihood of experiencing sleep disorders. In a recent study, approximately 20% of patients (6) with chronic neck or lower back pain reported serious sleep problems, including getting fewer than four hours of sleep per night.
Studies also show that while disturbed sleep can be a result of chronic pain, sleep deprivation might also exacerbate the pain. This degree of sleep impairment from chronic pain can affect all aspects of a person’s life, including cognitive and physical functioning.
Several treatment options can help minimize the impact that chronic pain, including neck pain, has on sleep. These treatment options include relaxation therapy, such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation (7), cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychodynamic therapy (8). For acute (non-chronic) pain, simple remedies including ice and heat, over-the-counter pain relievers, massage, and stretching may help ease neck pain.
Why Do I Sometimes Wake Up with a Stiff Neck?
It is not uncommon for people to go to bed symptom-free, only to wake up in the morning with an aching neck or back. This type of nighttime-acquired pain can arise due to an unsupportive pillow, a poor sleeping position, or a sudden movement.
Although pillows are intended to support the spine (9) in a neutral position, they can cause symptoms such as a stiff neck when they lack support. Even if your pillow feels comfortable, it may not be an appropriate pillow (10) for minimizing or preventing neck pain. To help support your neck, it may be best to avoid a feather pillow or regular foam pillow, and instead choose a contoured latex, foam, or polyester pillow.
Additionally, recent studies confirm the connection between sleep posture (11) and waking with a stiff neck or an aching back. To help prevent the development of neck or back pain during the night, try sleeping on your side. In studies, the side-sleeping position was found to be the most preventative of spinal symptoms, such as neck pain, while stomach sleeping was most likely to cause spinal pain. Stomach sleeping is believed to induce pain because it places an increased load on spinal tissue.
Prior injuries like whiplash (12) can cause neck pain, and the pain can worsen during the night. An aching neck or back may also be caused by sudden movements, such as myoclonus (13), a brief involuntary twitching or jerking of a muscle or group of muscles, including neck muscles.
How Can I Get Rid of Neck Pain From Sleeping Wrong?
To reduce neck pain from sleeping in the wrong position or from an unsupportive pillow, the following methods may provide relief:
- Apply ice or heat to the neck. Use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours, and use heat after that.
- Apply heat using warm showers or baths, hot compresses, or heating pads.
- Use over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen.
- Have a partner or professional gently massage your neck.
- Ask your healthcare provider about physical therapy techniques, such as massage, stretching, and strengthening exercises.
Choosing the right pillow may also help prevent or alleviate neck pain. Research shows that people who wake up with a stiff or aching neck may be sleeping on a pillow that is not right for them. To prevent neck pain from sleeping, consider trying a new pillow that is made of foam, polyester, or latex, and that is contoured for optimal head placement.
For chronic neck pain, studies show that using a visco-elastic polyurethane pillow (14), also known as a memory foam pillow, in conjunction with chiropractic treatment helped people manage their pain. Memory foam pillows appear to be more supportive than other pillow types for this type of pain.
Successfully Manage Neck Pain from Sleeping
Sleeping in a spine-supporting position and choosing the right pillow can help prevent neck pain from occurring. However, if you wake up with a stiff or aching neck, your pain can be minimized or alleviated by following some simple tips. If your neck pain continues or becomes chronic, discuss it with your healthcare professional to find ways to effectively manage it.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK338120/ Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19445809/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000802.htm Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19005925/ Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19020905/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23300350/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27261979/ Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2010/01/psychodynamic-therapy Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21197317/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22379258/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31256029/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://www.uptodate.com/contents/neck-pain-beyond-the-basics Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Myoclonus-Fact-Sheet Accessed on March 15, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31934412/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.