What’s the Best Sleep Position for Neck Pain and Headaches?

Millions of Americans struggle to sleep at night because neck pain and headaches are keeping them awake. Whether these are your first few nights of feeling discomfort and experiencing how it can ruin your sleep, or you’ve had problems for years and years, you don’t have to put up with it. And if you follow just a few of the tips below, you might kiss goodbye to neck pain for good.

The point of this guide is to explore neck pain, headaches, and how they affect sleep. It will begin by detailing how changing your sleeping position might help, and pointing out how best to sleep in various positions to ensure that your neck stays comfortable and doesn’t get stiff.

We will also look at the options available for sleeping with or without a pillow. Depending on your posture and the pain you suffer from, you may find it best to sleep without a pillow. Or, you may prefer changing the kind of pillow you sleep with.

Either option can help, so it’s best to try several options before deciding what works for you. If you would like to know more about all of the above, read on.

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 simple to 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

The vast majority of us sleep on our backs. It’s probably the easiest way to get comfortable at night and is the easiest way to achieve an even and natural distribution of our body weight. So why does it result in neck pain and headaches? And is there any way of improving our sleeping position on our back to prevent neck pain?

When sleeping on your back, you need to ensure that your pillow is right for you. Your pillow should not be too high and too hard, or too soft and too low, as this will mean that it is impossible for your neck and head to rest naturally. Your neck muscles will be tensed and will hurt by morning.

If your pillow is plump and soft, it will conform to the curve of your neck. Or, if you prefer, a low and hard pillow will offer just the right support. Ideally, you also want a little more pillow underneath your neck than underneath your head. This will help to mimic the natural standing posture that will prevent neck pain and headaches.

Have a feel around your neck to see if it is jutting up or downward. You should also consider the rest of your body. If you keep your knees slightly bent, this can ease pressure on your lower back, and improve your neck position by proxy. So consider sleeping with a pillow underneath your knees, and you might have found your perfect sleeping position.

Sleeping on Your Front

In terms of finding a sleeping position to combat neck pain, this is the worst. If you sleep on your front, it is almost certainly the reason why you have neck pain. Let’s take a look at why sleeping on your front is bad for your neck and spine generally.

The first thing to know about sleeping on your front is that it’s the least comfortable sleeping position, no matter how you try it. You need a very thin pillow for it to be even slightly comfortable. Anything other than this will mean that your neck is bent too far back, which will only cause more pain.

Sleeping on your front also necessitates sleeping with your head to the side. This will cause stiff neck on one side because your neck muscles have been facing one direction all night. That stiffness and soreness will also cause you headaches. And sleeping on your front, you will experience the same pain no matter what kind of pillow you have.

Unsure why sleeping on your front is so bad? Try this simple tip: take a photo. Take a photo from the side of your pillow, and take a look at the curve of your neck, as well as the height of your head relative to your spine. You’ll quickly see that your neck is twisted at an unnatural angle. Try sleeping in a different position instead.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 up from the mattress. You still need the pillow to give substantial support to your neck.
  3. 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.

Which sleep position causes the most neck pain?

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 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?

Sleeping with No Pillow

If you’ve tried almost every pillow available, and you’re still not happy, you might want to try sleeping without one. It might just offer you the ‘reset’ you need to get rid of your neck pain and get back to sleeping well. That being said, going without a pillow is not going to be your best option- and here’s why.

Like everything to do with back or neck pain, it all comes back to your natural posture. If your pillow is too high, it pushes your neck too far forward, causing the muscles to strain. Sleeping with no pillow does the same but in reverse.

If you sleep without a pillow, your neck will be too far back. Try this little exercise, right now: taking care not to tilt your head in any direction, simply move your neck backward as far as it can go. Can you feel that strain at the base of your neck? That’s the same kind of strain that your neck will be under all night if you sleep without a pillow.

We understand that it can be frustrating trying to get to sleep on a pillow when you have either neck pain or a headache. But there are a few simple tips that might just help you get a good night’s sleep.

Can you get a headache from poor sleeping position?

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.

Choosing a Pillow

So, what kind of pillows are available? And which might be right for you? Let’s take a brief look at some of the kinds available on the market today. To keep things simple, we’ve sorted them by how soft they are, with the softest first.

  • Feather and down pillows are the softest of the soft. Both are stuffed with feathers, although down pillows are manufactured using only the softest feathers without quills. These pillows are soft enough that they cannot force your neck too far out of its natural curve; the only downside is that they cannot provide much support for your neck, either.
  • Memory foam pillows are the ‘best of both worlds.’ While they conform to the shape of your neck, head, and shoulders, they also provide far better support than feather pillows. The precise amount of support they provide can vary, depending on your taste. The only downside is that memory foam pillows tend to be more expensive.
  • Buckwheat and bead pillows are more robust than other kinds. Rather than gentle comfort, these pillows offer solid support. To get the best out of them, the pillow has to be quite thin, so as not to push your neck out of shape.
  • Specialist pillows are available for neck and shoulder pain. You can buy pillows which are more like a roll than a traditional pillow shape, to provide more support specifically to the neck.

Ultimately, the choice comes down to you. But, make sure that you try a few different kinds of pillows before committing. Remember, your pillow is with you every night, and every morning.  Spending a little on a supportive pillow could make a world of difference.