Neck pain can be one of the most debilitating ailments to have – a real pain in the neck! It is important to be aware that neck pain is only a symptom and can be caused by a myriad of reasons such as occupational or age related wear and tear, or prior neck procedures. If you’re awakening in the morning with neck pain, a good place to examine would be your sleeping position.
Sleeping positions for neck pain
In the right sleeping position, your head and neck should be aligned with your spine without muscular involvement i.e your neck muscles shouldn’t have to engage to keep it aligned. There are 2 general positions you should try to sleep in if you have pain in the neck: back and side sleeping. People with neck pain should avoid sleeping on their stomach.
Back sleeping is widely considered the healthiest sleeping position because it allows your head, neck, and spine to rest in a neutral position and also prevents acid reflux. Your bodyweight is also spread across more surface area so there is less pressure on your joints to cause pain.
To achieve a neutral position, elevate your head slightly using a pillow that also supports the curve in your neck. These can be flatter foam pillows, contoured foam pillows, or underfilled down pillows. If you prefer plusher pillows, a good option would be shredded memory foam pillows which can be lofty but still allow your head to be sink to the right height due to its viscoelasticity.
You should avoid pillows that flex your head upwards as this places the stress of your bodyweight on your neck joints, which will lead to morning neck pain. Stuffed pillows are the most common culprits of this.
Side sleeping is the most common sleeping position, and can be helpful in reducing snoring or for people with sleep apnea. Try to straighten your body when sleeping on your side instead of curling into a fetal position, which can restrict breathing. You may feel some tension in your hips due to the weight of your top leg, and this can pull your spine out of alignment too. To alleviate this, simply place a pillow or bolster between your knees.
Side sleepers tend to require more loft in their pillow in order to accommodate their shoulders. This is best achieved with an ergonomically contoured pillow with a supportive ridge in the neck region, or a memory foam-filled pillow if you prefer a plusher variety. Stuffed pillows will also work, though you must get the amount of stuffing just right or it will flex your neck into unnatural positions or lack support. This is a reason that we generally do not recommend traditional stuffed pillows unless the amount of stuffing is adjustable.
Stomach sleeping is the most unhealthy position of the three. Stomach sleepers have to turn their head to their side in order to breathe, and this places a tremendous amount of stress on the neck joints. Because most of your weight is in the middle of your body, this tends to lead to extension of the spine and neck, which keeps the neck muscles tense. As such, you may find that you wake up with neck pain and stiffness sleeping on your stomach.