How to Prevent Neck Pain While Sleeping


Written by Dr. Michael Breus

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Neck pain affects many people around the world, from adults to children. Studies have found that this pain can potentially interfere with sleep. Along the same lines, obtaining adequate sleep while experiencing neck pain is important, since those with lower sleep quality tend to have more intense pain and are more likely to experience depression.

We explain reasons people might wake up with neck pain, how to prevent neck pain during sleep, and how to relieve neck pain if you are experiencing it.

Why Do You Wake Up With Neck Pain?

There are multiple reasons a person might wake up with neck pain. Common causes include using the wrong pillow or mattress, sleeping in the wrong position, having bad posture, or having a neck or back injury.

Improper Support

Several research studies have examined the role a person’s mattress and pillow can play in their neck and back pain. Without adequate support, a person can put stress on their neck as they sleep, which might lead to daytime symptoms.

Though mattress preference varies from person to person, one study found that older adults who experience pain fared better when sleeping on a medium firm mattress. Sleeping on this type of mattress led to less pain and helped them fall asleep faster. Also, a pillow’s height and shape, in conjunction with the sleeper’s preferred sleep position, might determine how well a pillow provides support as a person sleeps.

Pillow placement matters. You really want the pillow to be down towards the shoulder so that way we can get support all the way up through the neck and head.
Dr. Michael Breus

Wrong Sleeping Position

Multiple research studies have examined how a person’s sleep position affects back and neck pain. However, most researchers refrain from naming the best sleep position for all people.

Generally, studies have found that stomach sleeping, also called sleeping prone, is the position most likely to cause or exacerbate pain. Switching to back or side sleeping positions has been found to improve pain in several studies. Of course, a sleep position likely only reduces pain when a person has the correct pillow for that position.

Poor Posture

In addition to sleep position, daytime posture has been found to impact neck pain. For example, one study found that adolescents who spend time watching television while lying down, or those who slump while sitting at a desk, tend to experience more neck pain.

Similarly, another study found that young adults experience more neck pain after working on a laptop from a couch or bed, suggesting that certain postures lead to more pain. Conversely, frequently changing positions may protect against neck pain.

Neck or Back Injuries

For about 10% of people, acute neck pain later becomes chronic pain, which can occur during the day or at night. Often, sudden neck pain results from an identifiable event, such as a sports-related injury , or whiplash due to a car crash.

Other Factors

Stress, anxiety, genetics, and neuromusculoskeletal or autoimmune conditions can raise a person’s risk of experiencing neck pain.

Best Sleeping Position for Neck Pain

Generally, studies show that stomach sleeping is the worst position for neck pain. If you sleep on your stomach, consider switching to side or back sleeping.

When sleeping on your back, try to keep both arms in similar positions. One study found that sleeping with one arm up by the head and the other down by your side can affect muscle activity and potentially cause pain.

Best Pillow for Neck Pain

A pillow with the appropriate height and thickness helps support the head and neck, keeping the spine aligned and reducing pressure buildup during sleep.

Studies have examined the effect multiple pillow types have on pain, finding that latex pillows may provide the most effective support for side sleepers. Spring pillows and memory foam pillows can also help prevent or reduce neck pain.

How to Relieve Neck Pain From Sleeping Wrong

If you still wake up with neck pain after making adjustments to your sleep setup, you may be able to relieve symptoms by practicing neck exercises for mobility and strength. Alternative treatments like chiropractic care, acupuncture, yoga, or massage may also be helpful.

If the pain continues, see your doctor so they can screen for underlying problems and recommend treatment options. You can also ask your doctor about over-the-counter pain medications.

About The Author

Dr. Michael Breus

Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert

Michael Breus, Ph.D is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. He holds a BA in Psychology from Skidmore College, and PhD in Clinical Psychology from The University of Georgia. Dr. Breus has been in private practice as a sleep doctor for nearly 25 years. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is also the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, Good Night!, and Energize!

  • POSITION: Combination Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Hot Sleeper

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