What's The Best Way To Sleep To Prevent Neck Pain?

I must have slept wrong” or “I must have slept funny.” Those are some of the most common things people say to physical therapists, massage therapists, and chiropractors when they tell them how their neck pain or neck stiffness started. But can sleeping in certain positions really cause your neck to hurt and feel stiff? 


Sleeping “wrong” or sleeping “funny” isn’t the most common cause of neck pain or neck stiffness, but it can be a factor. Here’s the difference… if you frequently wake up with a stiff and sore neck then it’s probably not the position you’re sleeping in that’s doing it, it’s something else. But if you wake up with neck pain and stiffness just once in a while, then your sleeping position just might be the cause (and the things you were doing before you went to sleep are probably even a bigger factor). 


If waking up with neck pain and neck stiffness is just an occasional thing…


In spite of what you hear on the TV ads for mattresses… moving around (“tossing and turning”) while you sleep is normal. In fact, occasionally changing positions while you sleep is healthy because it prevents stiffness and is healthy for the discs in your spine! Being still for hours on end is bad for any joint in the body – from your fingers and toes all the way to your back and neck. 


Have you ever been in a cast for a broken bone? Remember how stiff and sore the joints were when you finally got the cast off after 4-6 weeks? That soreness and stiffness is a result of breaking up the fibrotic tissue that was put in the joints by your body when the joint stopped moving. That process can start with just four hours of immobility (not moving)!


So, if you fall asleep and don’t move for 5 or more hours you run the risk of waking up with soreness and stiffness in your neck and back. Falling asleep with the help of sleep aid medications, alcohol, or other drugs can put you in such a deep sleep that you don’t naturally toss and turn as much, and you end up staying in the same position much longer than you normally would. Also, being too cold can cause the occasional sore and stiff neck because your muscles to stay too tight (contracted) as you lay there in a ball trying to stay warm. 


If you frequently wake up with neck pain and stiffness then it’s probably not your pillow or mattress… 


If you don’t regularly use sleep aids, alcohol, or other drugs to fall asleep and stay asleep and yet you still frequently wake up with a stiff neck or sore neck then it’s probably your neck and back that is the problem – not your mattress or pillow or the position you were sleeping in. 


We all want to be comfortable and what’s comfortable for one person may be different for another – so there’s no one right position to sleep in. Besides, once you fall asleep, you’re going to move around a bit anyway. As long as you’re getting quality sleep it doesn’t really matter how you’re positioned when you fall asleep. However, if your neck is already hurt from something else, you might think it’s how you’re sleeping that’s causing the problem. A neck or back that is out of alignment and injured from other things (car accidents, sports injuries, arthritis, etc) will likely feel painful and stiff no matter what kind of pillow or mattress you use. The key is to work on improving the health and function of your spine, not investing a small fortune in different pillows and mattresses. 


General tips for preventing a stiff neck or sore neck when you wake up in the morning…

  • Avoid using medication or drugs to fall asleep as they have a tendency to reduce how much you move around in your sleep
  • Make sure your mattress is flat by flipping and rotating it every 3 months (if you stand and look at your mattress without any sheets on it and you can see exactly where you normally lay down… it’s time to flip the mattress or buy a new one)
  • Just use one pillow when you’re sleeping on your back or side and no pillow if you’re sleeping on your stomach (if you need to use 2 or 3 pillows to prop yourself up because of heartburn then fix the heartburn problem
  • Do a few gentle neck and back stretches before you go to bed if you’ve had a very physical day and have used your neck and back muscles more than you normally do
  • Make sure you have enough blankets to stay warm all night long (the coldest hours are the couple of hours just before sunrise)