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We’ve all been there. You’re going along fine, and then one morning, you wake up with neck pain from sleeping wrong.
You know — that deep ache from the back of your head down into your shoulder blade that makes it nearly impossible to turn your head — yeah, it’s going to be a good day.
Why does this happen? How are you sleeping wrong?!
Let’s take a closer look, plus what you can do to feel better fast.
*Friendly PSA – This post will discuss garden variety neck pain from sleeping wrong that is not associated with other chronic cervical spine conditions. The information here is for educational purposes only and is not medical advice.*
WHAT CAUSES NECK PAIN FROM SLEEPING WRONG?
Sleeping should be easy, right? It turns out, there are several ways this relaxing activity can leave you feeling anything but rested.
YOUR SLEEPING POSITION
Sleeping posture is related to neck and shoulder pain as well as headaches. (Lee et al.) Sleeping position is also linked with the quality of sleep.
Studies have predicted there is a reciprocal relationship between sleep and pain. The less quality sleep you get, the harder it is for the body to heal. Round and round we go, deeper into this vicious cycle.
When sleeping, you spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours in the same position. Your sleeping position can cause muscle strain, leading to an unwelcome neck spasm in the morning.
What’s the best way to sleep? The best sleep position is one that’s comfortable for you while maintaining good alignment of the spine. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
Stomach sleeping or some side sleeping positions are more likely to result in neck discomfort due to poor spinal alignment.
If you notice frequent neck pain in the morning, you might be using the wrong pillow.
What’s the right pillow? That will take some trial and error. Pillows are a personal preference.
Let’s take a closer look.
A supportive pillow optimizes spinal alignment and reduces the chances of waking up with neck pain. A pillow that is too flat or too elevated can cause pain. We’re looking for that “just right” zone.
Look for a pillow that suits your preferred sleeping position. For example, if you’re a side sleeper, you may need a bit more height to accommodate room for your shoulder and avoid your head from collapsing down. If you’re a back sleeper, too high of a pillow can pitch your head forward and cause neck strain.
Avoid propping your head higher than the rest of your body, which places the neck at an awkward angle and can contribute to neck pain and headaches.
If you need to have your head elevated, try a wedge instead to support the head, neck, and shoulders to maintain alignment.
Good support does more than help avoid neck pain. Proper alignment can also help decrease snoring, improve breathing, and decrease episodes of sleep disruption, improving your overall sleep quality.
Her J et al. looked at head and spine position on various pillows during supine and side-lying. The study concluded that pillows with a uniform height are not suitable for supine or side-lying sleeping.
A contoured pillow (sometimes called a cervical pillow) can help support the natural curve of the spine. You can also place a cervical roll inside your existing pillowcase to add some support for your neck.
The material of your pillow also matters. Too squishy, and there won’t be enough support. A feather pillow, memory foam pillow, and fiber fill pillow will all provide different sensations of support.
This review by Yim J concluded that a firm pillow with a cool temperature provides an optimal environment for restful sleep.
Side sleepers may also find body pillows to be a comfortable option to support the neck and shoulders as well as the lumbar spine by having a spacer between the knees. These extra sleeping accessories can also be more comfortable for the low back, hips, and knees.
Also, try not to make a habit of falling asleep on the couch.
HOW YOU MOVE IN YOUR SLEEP
Have you ever seen dogs “chasing cars” in their sleep? It turns out we do some of that too.
Sudden or jerky movements while sleeping can cause muscle spasms.
While you can’t necessarily control your adventures mid-sleep, you need to be aware that this is also a contributing factor. Some unconscious movement is normal, but if you’re very restless, you might want to talk with your doctor.
Discomfort from injuries or chronic pain might feel magnified when you first wake up because you haven’t been moving to promote blood flow and circulation.
HOW TO RELIEVE NECK PAIN FROM SLEEPING WRONG
The natural tendency to help a muscle spasm is to try and stretch it or not move at all. When a muscle is in spasm, aggressive stretching is counterproductive. Try gentle range of motion instead and avoid immobilization.
Muscles and joints need gentle movement and circulation. Avoiding movement typically leads to more pain and prolongs the time until feeling better.
Here are some easy ways to ease neck stiffness from sleeping wrong.
*These exercises are for educational purposes only and may not be suitable for everyone, especially if you have other cervical spine issues past the garden variety stiff neck. This article is not meant to diagnose or treat any conditions.*
When it feels too uncomfortable to move your neck, you can gently move other muscles with attachments to the head and neck — like the upper traps and levator scapulae.
Shoulder rolls are a gentle way to introduce some mobility to a cranky area.
How to perform:
- In a seated or standing position, upright your posture in a natural way
- Gently bring your shoulders forward, up, back, and down as if you were following the outline of a clock.
- Try to keep your head aligned over your spine and avoid jutting the chin forward as you move your shoulders.
- You can experiment with clockwise and counterclockwise directions.
- Don’t forget to keep breathing.
- Perform 10-20 repetitions as needed throughout the day.
THORACIC SPINE MOBILIZATION
The upper thoracic spine (upper back) and neck work together. Gentle mobilization of the thoracic spine can help other areas from becoming stiff due to pain and guarding.
GENTLE THORACIC EXTENSION
Maintaining thoracic extension is essential for healthy cervical spine and shoulder motion.
How to perform:
- Sit tall and interlace your fingers behind your head and neck
- Cradling your head, gently extend your upper back only
- Return to a neutral spine position
- Repeat 5-10 times
GENTLE THORACIC ROTATION
How to perform:
- Sit tall and rotate to the right using your arms like a kickstand to help you turn your spine.
- Allow the head and neck to follow, but don’t actively rotate the neck, just let it follow.
- Release and turn to the left side. There should be minimal to no neck discomfort.
- Rotate 5-10 times in each direction.
GENTLE CERVICAL SPINE RANGE OF MOTION
The frustrating part of waking up with neck pain is the moving hurts, but some motion is necessary to start feeling better. Gentle range of motion (in a pain-free range) can start to loosen up stiff and painful muscles.
Forcing range of motion that causes pain is counterproductive. It’s important to acknowledge this, even if it may feel like you can only move a small amount.
- Gentle nods up and down
- Gentle nods side to side
- Gentle tilting side to side
Over the next few days, you should start to see an improvement in how far you can move pain-free.
SELF-MOBILIZATION WITH TOWEL
This has become one of my favorite go-to moves for neck stiffness.
Unless you have a job where looking up is common, most people are just constantly looking down at phones, flattening the cervical spine curve over time.
This exercise uses a towel to gently mobilize the neck joints, as is great for maintaining healthy range of motion.
This motion is not for everyone. Always check with your doctor or physical therapist.
- Place the towel around the back of your neck and hold with both hands.
- Using the towel to cradle you neck gently extend your neck as you look toward the ceiling in a symptom-free range
- Tuck you chin and roll back up to neutral
- Repeat 5-10 times
Other generalized light exercises like walking or yoga can help warm up tissues and improve circulation.
When it comes to neck stiffness, not moving is one of the worst things you can do!
TIPS FOR TRAVEL
Whether it’s planes, trains, or automobiles, sometimes catching some sleep on the go is a necessity. Don’t get to your destination in pain!
Invest in the right tools to minimize neck pain from sleeping on the go.
I recently got the TRTL neck pillow after I was stuck on an overnight flight with no space to recline. Spoiler alert – it was miserable. The traditional blow-up U-shaped pillow was pitching my head forward, making it impossible to get comfortable.
You can also try this moldable travel pillow with a flat back that doesn’t push your head forward and you can mold it into different shapes to suit your sleep style. It might also be useful if you like to doze off on the couch!
OTHER HELPFUL TOOLS TO MANAGE NECK PAIN
Gentle active movement is necessary to relieve this kind of neck pain; however, some of these more passive tools may help bring temporary relief to help you get through the day.
Ice is a convenient option to help with muscle spasms and pain management and can help temporarily take off the edge. These ice packs are not the teeny-tiny overpriced drug store kind. The awesome physical therapy office kind!
These large ice packs come in a variety of large sizes to cover anything you need. The cervical spine size is excellent for the neck, shoulder, knee, or ankle!
The ice-heat debate for muscle stiffness is real. In some cases, it comes down to personal preference. A hot shower might feel relieving. Direct heat to the neck sometimes results in headaches. It depends on what works for you.
Many heating pads are microwave-ready to get heated relief in just a few minutes – like this hot pack with lavender aroma.
Pro tip: Too hot or too cold is never a good thing for your skin. Make sure you take the appropriate precautions and place extra towels between your skin and the hot/cold pack.
No time to sit around with heat or ice on your neck? No problem.
Biofreeze is a pain-relieving gel (it comes in a gel, roll-on, and spray) that provides a cooling menthol sensation to decrease pain.
Biofreeze does not contain medication and can be a helpful adjunct to manage pain as you go about your day. It helps take the edge off.
Pro tip: this stuff is strong. Always make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after applying to avoid getting menthol in your eyes (or anywhere else). If applying the gel, you can also use a disposable glove to minimize any residue left after washing your hands.
(I think the roll-on style is the least messy of the three.)
Massage guns are gaining popularity in the fitness world as people look for easy ways to help manage muscle pain at home.
For neck and shoulder pain, it’s best if you can recruit someone in your household to hold the massage gun for you so you can fully relax your muscles.
Massage guns run the gamut in terms of price, bells, and whistles, and how “cool” they look, but there’s something for everyone.
WHEN TO GET HELP
Waking up with a stiff neck is — well — a real pain in the neck. But that’s all it is.
Seek help if you notice your pain is accompanied by more concerning symptoms such as:
- Severe neck pain and are unable to move
- Dizziness, double vision, or other unusual visual disturbances
- Severe headaches
- Numbness, tingling, or weakness
- Anything out of the ordinary or concerning for you
Under normal circumstances, a stiff neck from sleeping wrong should gradually improve with gentle movement in a few days to 1-2 weeks.
If you feel like your symptoms are not improving, check in with your doctor or physical therapist.
Neck pain from sleeping wrong is a real pain in the neck! Luckily, there are plenty of ways you can minimize waking up with these uncomfortable symptoms.
Your sleeping environment should be as comfortable as you can make it to help you get the best quality rest possible.
The best sleeping position is one that’s comfortable for you while maintaining good alignment of the spine.
Of course, even with the best sleeping habits, there will still be times when you wake up with the occasional sore neck. Now you know some ways to deal with it to get better faster.
You might also like:
- Shoulder Impingement Pain – Tips & Tools to Get Better Fast
- 7 Foam Roller Exercises After A Long Day At The Office
- Pro Tips For Text Neck Pain
- Improve Your Posture by Focusing on These 3 Simple Things
Lee WH, Ko MS. Effect of sleep posture on neck muscle activity. J Phys Ther Sci. 2017;29(6):1021-1024. doi:10.1589/jpts.29.1021
Liu SF, Lee YL, Liang JC. Shape design of an optimal comfortable pillow based on the analytic hierarchy process method. J Chiropr Med. 2011;10(4):229-239. doi:10.1016/j.jcm.2011.04.002
Her JG, Ko DH, Woo JH, Choi YE. Development and comparative evaluation of new shapes of pillows. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014;26(3):377-380. doi:10.1589/jpts.26.377
Yim, Jongeun. (2015). Optimal Pillow Conditions for High-Quality Sleep: A Theoretical Review. Indian Journal of Science and Technology. 8. 135. 10.17485/ijst/2015/v8iS5/62330.