Getting a good night’s sleep with neck pain is no easy task. For most people, sleeping will make your neck pain worse, not better. The odds are that you’ve tried sleeping every which way: on your back, on your front, on either side, with a pillow, without a pillow, maybe even on the couch. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find relief without guidance.
That’s why we’ve put together this guide. We begin by examining what you really shouldn’t do. If you didn’t know, sleeping on your front and sleeping without a pillow aren’t good ideas. We detail the reasons why you should or shouldn’t sleep in certain positions, and why sleeping on a pillow is your best option.
Following on from these sections, we help you decide on which kind of pillow you should choose. There are a dozen different kinds of pillows, ranging from super-soft to ultra-hard. You can also choose between pillows which are plump or pillows which are relatively flat. Your choice can make the difference between a good night’s sleep and neck pain the next morning.
What Are the Causes of Neck Pain?
If you are looking for neck pain relief, you have many options available to you. You could try neck braces, massage, buying a new pillow, or stretches, and exercise. However, each one of these neck pain relief methods achieves the same goals: applying the basic principles of comfort and using them to ‘cure your pain. Here are the three principal causes of neck pain:
- Neck pain can be caused by the neck being positioned unnaturally for an extended period.
- Neck pain can be caused by sudden trauma which you feel the effects of later.
- Neck pain can be caused by repeated strain over time.
As such, you may experience neck pain for many reasons. Perhaps you strain your neck muscles at work, through heavy lifting. Maybe you were in an accident in the recent past, and you feel the strain in your neck every morning. Or maybe your sleeping position is causing you tension over the course of each night.
There are a few reasons why you may be straining your neck at night. First, you may find that your sleeping position is all wrong. You may also find that your pillow is too high, too low, too soft, or too hard. Whatever the case, it is worth trying a few changes to find your perfect sleeping arrangement. First up, here are our two tips on what to avoid when you’re trying to get to sleep.
What’s the Right Sleep Position for Neck Pain and Headaches?
The first point you will have to consider is whether your sleep position is causing neck pain and headaches. There is every chance that a change to your posture as you sleep could be the trick you need to defeat your neck pain, once and for all.
But why is sleep position so important? Here’s why:
- The neck is an extension of the spine. As you will already know, the spine has a natural curvature. The vertebrae of your neck are no exception. The natural position of your neck vertebrae is to be leaning forward, slightly, from the shoulders. In this position, the neck muscles work evenly to hold up the head.
- If you move your head from side to side or hold your head too far forward or too far back, your neck muscles have to stretch. First, they have to stretch to hold up the weight of your head. Second, they stretch to prevent the neck vertebrae from moving back to their natural position.
- Like any muscle, the more you use it, the more chance of it straining. If your neck muscles are forced to work for too long or are forced to work unevenly, this will cause pain. And as you probably know, that strain can cause headaches too.
This applies equally to whether you are sat in an office chair, or trying to get to sleep. So how can sleeping in a different position change how much your neck muscles have to work? And, most importantly, how can you prevent neck pain and headaches?
Sleeping On Your Back
Sleeping on your back is the most natural, and perhaps the best way to relieve neck pain. However, that’s just the case if you know how best to sleep on your back. It’s not as simple as lying down and expecting complete comfort! You have to make sure that everything, from your position to your pillow and your mattress, is working for you. Here are the three things you have to think of:
- Is your pillow providing the right kind of support? Depending on your body, you might want a pillow that’s firm or soft, tall, or flat. There is no ‘one size fits all pillow, otherwise, all pillows would be the same—so you have to find the one that’s right for you. If you have the wrong kind of pillow, you’re setting yourself up for neck pain.
- Is your mattress firm or soft enough? Firmer mattresses provide the best support for back pain. Softer mattresses are more comfortable, however, and may give you a better night’s sleep. If you are sleeping with the wrong kind, you’ll wake up sore, and you won’t feel well-rested.
- Are you sleeping in the correct position? As we addressed above, you don’t want your pillow to hold your head in an uncomfortable position. But there are other things you should remember. For instance, it’s best to sleep with a thin pillow underneath your knees to help your spine into a more natural position. You should also make sure that your neck, spine, and legs are straight along a vertical line.
Whether you choose to sleep on your back or your side, there are a few fundamental principles for you to live by.
Sleeping on Your Front
If you sleep with neck pain, you will at some point have tried sleeping on your front. You may, at first, feel some relief from your pain—at least for a few minutes. But sleeping on your front with neck pain is not a good idea. In fact, it’s more likely to make your neck pain worse, if anything. The reason why sleeping on your front is the wrong decision is that it strains your neck muscles.
It occurs because of two main reasons:
- Sleeping on your front, you will have to turn your head to the side. Think of the last time you went to the cinema and had to look at the screen from an angle. No doubt you would have ended up with a ‘crick in your neck. The same principle applies to sleeping on your side except, in this case, the result is even more painful.
- Sleeping on your front pushes your head into an unnatural position, even besides the fact that it turned to the side. Think of your natural posture: your neck and head jut forward slightly. For some people, in fact, they jut forward quite a lot. Sleeping on your front pushes your head and neck backward in an unnatural way.
Over the course of a night, the strain that these factors cause will result in neck pain. By the following morning, you will be in agony—even worse than you are now. So even if you do feel some relief from your pain by trying to sleep on your front, remember that by the morning, your pain will be worse than ever.
How To Sleep with Neck Pain on One Side
If you’ve tried sleeping on your back and your front, try sleeping on your side. This is a far more natural position for your neck and your spine to be in. It’s comfortable for your neck, although almost anything is more comfortable than sleeping on your front. So let’s take a look at how to sleep with neck pain on one side, in three steps.
- Try not to curl yourself up too much. You shouldn’t be looking to make yourself into as small a ‘ball as possible. Just lie reasonably straight on your side, and allow your back to stretch out. Bend your knees, too. You may be worried about neck pain, but the posture of your entire body matters too.
- To make sure that this position is comfortable to sleep in, even with neck pain, make sure that the pillow is the right height. For sleeping on your side, the pillow has to be taller than it would be when you sleep on your back. This is only because your neck will be higher from the mattress. You still need the pillow to give substantial support to your neck.
- Ideally, your spine should be straight from your tailbone to your head. In other words, your neck should not be propped up too much or too little. With the right amount of support, then, this sleeping position will help get rid of your neck pain. After a few nights, you should start to notice the difference.
How to Sleep with a Stiff Neck and Shoulder
Sleeping with a stiff and sore neck/shoulder area is tough. The pain is enough to keep anybody up at night. But here are some hints and tips that might help you drift off, and wake up pleasantly refreshed in the morning:
- Use either a hot or cold treatment before you go to bed. This may placate the pain for long enough to help you get to sleep. You could use a warm towel, an ice pack, or a hot water bottle.
- Try gently stretching your neck before you go to bed. Don’t attempt to exercise in a way that strains your neck. Just stretch your neck as far as you can without it hurting to try and ease the tension in your neck muscles. Stress and anxiety can cause sleeplessness.
- Try a topical analgesic. Just like hot or cold treatments, these may help numb your pain. With luck, you may have just enough time to get to sleep. Alternatively, use over-the-counter or natural pain relief medication.
These three tips should be enough to help you get to sleep. Choose a better sleeping position, and make it easy for yourself by treating your pain with one of these tips. Over time, this should be enough to help reduce neck pain and headaches.
Preventing Stiff Neck and Pain
Preventing stiff neck and pain is even more important than trying to numb it before you go to bed. But kissing goodbye to neck pain isn’t easy, as you know. And the reason why is simple: it’s because neck pain is caused by many factors, each of which feeds into each other in a kind of ‘vicious cycle.
One common reason why people experience neck and shoulder pain is their job. If you regularly have to lift heavy objects, this can cause shoulder pain and back pain. Try lifting with your legs, and keeping your back perfectly straight when you lift. If your pain is just too much for you, you may have to find another job.
But it’s not just heavy lifting that causes neck pain. Office work can too. When you sit at a desk for eight or nine hours a day, your posture will change. Your back curves too much, and your neck juts forward. Your shoulders roll forward too, to take up a better typing position. Try to remember to sit in a more natural posture for your body, or purchase corrective posture equipment.
Last but not least, your sleeping position may be to blame. After a long day at work, your pillow may not be giving your neck the support it needs. After a day of straining and damaging your neck muscles, you need to give your neck some time to heal. So why not consider getting rid of your pillow altogether?
Don’t Sleep Without a Pillow
Another thing you should avoid at all costs is sleeping without a pillow. Just like sleeping on your front, you may feel some relief at first. Lying down without a pillow can stretch your muscles in a way that helps ease your pain. At least, that’s how it will feel for the first ten minutes; any more, and you’re doing more harm than good. Here’s why.
You will strain your neck if you sleep without a pillow. Like sleeping on your front, your neck will be in an unnatural position with no pillow for support. Again, the natural position of your neck is to jut forward slightly from your shoulders. Sleeping without a pillow, gravity pulls your neck backwards/downwards, which places a strain on your muscles. By the morning, your neck will be hurting.
Again, you may be tricked into thinking that sleeping without a pillow is a workable solution. Like we mentioned above, for the first ten minutes, you might feel a little better. However, people have slept with pillows for thousands of years, for an excellent reason. You are not doing yourself any favors by going without.
Now we’ve covered the things you shouldn’t do when sleeping with neck pain, let’s move onto what you should do. Two sleeping positions work: sleeping on your back and sleeping on your side. Once we cover the best sleeping positions for neck pain, we also examine how your pillow can help. Depending on which you choose, you will need a different kind of pillow.
Sleeping with a Pillow
Sleeping with a pillow may seem the simplest of things. But unless you pay attention to which kind of pillow is best for you, and experiment with different kinds, then you’re setting yourself up for more neck pain. Here are a few of the variables which might be giving you neck pain:
- Pillows come in a variety of heights. You can buy pillows which are very thin, very thick, or somewhere in between. Everybody has a natural curvature of their neck, but the exact degree only varies slightly from person to person. Experiment to find what height is best for you.
- You have to position your pillow correctly, too. It should be underneath your head, neck, and, to an extent, your shoulders. It can then give proper support to your neck. If it is under just your head (as most people sleep), this puts pressure on your neck, jutting it forward too much.
- Pillows vary in their degree of hardness. You can choose very soft pillows made from down or feathers, or harder pillows stuffed with plastic beads (which are popular in Japan). Again, experiment to choose the right pillow for you. A tip: if you want a very thick pillow, you will probably be more comfortable if it’s also soft.
As we briefly mentioned above, pillows can be stuffed with a variety of materials. Aside from these three points above, the kind of pillow you buy is vital. It could make all the difference.
Sleeping with a Body Pillow
The odds are that you don’t have a body pillow already. They’re longer than your average pillow, typically a few feet. You might wonder why on earth you need one—but there are two excellent reasons to buy one.
- If you sleep on your side, a body pillow will allow you to separate your knees. Sleeping for the whole night on your side, with one knee on top of the other or in front of the other, will pull your spine out of position and cause you pain. You avoid that problem with a body pillow between your knees.
- Sleeping on your back, a body pillow underneath your knees will give you the elevation you need to keep your spine in a comfortable position. You could use your body pillow to accomplish this. Give it a try and see if you feel more or less comfortable—you may benefit from a thinner pillow here, as your legs aren’t supposed to be raised too high, only a little.
Body pillows aren’t commonly available from shops, but you can most certainly find them online. That being said, it might be a good idea for you to try and find one and test it out. Like other pillows, they can be either soft or firm, so you’ll have to find the one that’s right for you.
Which Pillow to Choose
Given that there are several different causes of neck pain, it is only right that there are several different ways to tackle it. If you need a new pillow, you have no shortage of choice. There’s something for everyone: tall, flat, soft, hard, manufactured and natural pillows are available. Here are just a few of those available to you:
- Tall Pillows are those which are plump and don’t lie flat on the bed. They raise your head from the mattress and are typically softer than other pillow types. Pillows like these are a good choice if rather than support, your neck would benefit more from comfort.
- Flat Pillows are, as the name suggests, reasonably flat—they aren’t stuffed full of stuffing. If your neck pain is caused by not giving your neck enough support when you sleep, a flat and firm pillow would be a good choice. If your current pillow is too high and too firm, you should switch it out for a flatter one. This will allow your neck to relax, rather than stretching out of its normal and healthy position.
- Soft Pillows are comfortable. The best soft pillows contain down filling, which almost collapses under the weight of your head. While this is exceptionally comfortable, it may not provide you with the support that you need. That being said, if your current pillow is too firm to allow your neck to sit comfortably, switch it out for a down pillow instead.
- Hard Pillows are filled with firmer material, such as memory foam. Harder pillows aren’t as hard as a rock; they’re a little firmer than those filled with down and are meant to support your neck and keep it in a comfortable position. Memory foam conforms to the shape of your neck rather than compacting like down. There are even pillows filled with beads, which are even firmer, and are popular in Japan.
- Natural Pillows are those which are specially made with an all-natural filling. The point is that some people prefer for their pillow to be free from what they see as harmful chemicals. These pillows can fall anywhere on the spectrum above: there are tall, soft pillows filled with bamboo fibers, for example. On the other hand, there are pillows packed with buckwheat hulls that are more solid.
So What Should I Do Now?
What should you do to help yourself get to sleep better at night? We’ve outlined a fair few points above, but they might not all be for you. It’s best to experiment and pick what fits you best. Here are our top tips for how you could sleep better with neck pain tonight:
- Experiment with changing the position you sleep in. Avoid sleeping on your front, and switch up between sleeping on your side and sleeping on your back. Follow our tips on sleeping comfortably to try and get a better night’s sleep.
- Take a look at your pillow. Do you find that it’s too soft or too hard? Does it not give you enough support, or it won’t let you get comfortable? Try an alternative from the list above that might work better for you.
- Remember to give your new solution time to work. You won’t find that a new pillow or sleeping in a new position will get rid of your neck pain overnight. That’s especially the case if your neck pain is the result of your job or some other cause that you can’t necessarily change. But after a few days, you should start to notice a difference.
- If all else fails, visit a medical professional. Ideally, we’re sure that you would like to tackle the problem on your own. But if nothing seems to work, you should take the time to see a doctor or even a chiropractor. After all, there’s nothing more important than your health.
So give some of the products listed above a try. There’s almost certainly going to be something that’ll work for you. Why not experiment with a few and find out?