Neck pain is one of the more common types of chronic musculoskeletal pain. Most of us tend to hold tension in our upper chest and shoulders, so it makes sense that this can lead to pain in these regions.
If we make things worse by sleeping poorly, the natural progression is to see more neck stiffness and pain over time. Headaches, a crunchy feeling in the neck, and poor range of motion are all signs of neck problems. So what are some sleep positions to help relieve neck pain? Read on.
An even worse type of chronic neck pain comes when we get injured in an accident or abuse our necks by sitting over a desk all day or driving long distances without adequate rest. We rarely think about neck protection when sitting still; however, hours of doing anything in the wrong position for too long could still lead to neck pain.
Let’s explore acute and chronic neck pain to see how it can improve this type of nagging pain by having the best possible sleep posture.
Common Causes of Neck Pain
There are acute and chronic causes of neck pain. Acute means the incident was sudden, such as an injury or accident. Acute incidents can lead to chronic pain in the neck because the neck structures are not always easily healed without lots of time and attention.
Chronic neck pain can occur without any specified injury, such as when you develop arthritis or suffer from chronic poor posture or tension. This type of pain is gradual in onset but is equally slow in going away.
Poor posture during the daytime hours can contribute to neck pain. Sitting hunched over a desk or in a stiff chair all day can contribute to neck pain without any real injury. Most of us think of our backs when the term “poor posture” comes up; however, neck pain can arise from poor posture. The spine is one interconnected unit, so when one part fails to function optimally, the rest will compensate and eventually fail as well.
Injury or Trauma
The most classical type of neck injury is “whiplash,” which means that the neck sustains a sudden forward flexion/backward extension injury, often in an automobile accident. The bones are generally fine; however, the tendons and ligaments that support them are stretched or torn, leading to a potentially devastating neck injury.
Neck fractures, head trauma, and even shoulder injuries can affect the neck suddenly. The neck must support a heavy skull and its internal structures; it isn’t designed for major injuries of any kind, particularly as it is held together by multiple ligaments that must work together to keep the neck from becoming painful.
Stress and Tension
You may not think that tension is a source of any type of pain; however, if you look at someone under stress, you’ll see that they often hold their shoulders up too high and seem constricted in the upper chest region. This is entirely subconscious but often sets up chronic pain and even arthritis of the neck region.
Stress and tension are like exercises for the neck that you keep doing without stopping or resting when needed. It is very hard on these delicate muscles and their attachments; it is worse if you don’t sleep properly to reduce muscle strain during nighttime.
Arthritis of the neck joints can be hereditary or brought on by chronic wear and tear on the bones and joints of the cervical spine. Injuries can heal but may worsen symptoms as arthritis sets in after the acute injury has passed.
How Can Sleep Positions Help?
Neck pain during the day cannot always be helped; however, much can be done to prevent neck pain if you find ways to allow nighttime healing of this delicate spine region. If you instead worsen the problem by tossing and turning all night or lying down in the wrong position, your opportunities for recovery are far less.
Sleeping on Your Back
Sleeping on your back is far preferable to sleeping on your abdomen when you have a sore neck. The key to pain relief is having a pillow that does not flex your neck too much in the forward direction. A straight alignment on your back with a moderately high pillow designed for your size will help you sleep better.
Avoid provocative positions like sleeping with your arms high above your head, and avoid any pillow that doesn’t feel right from the beginning. Experts who study pillows and their ability to help or hinder sleep say that a feather pillow is not the best for neck pain and that inexpensive foam pillows are probably fine for most of us.
Sleeping on Your Side
Side sleeping is not always bad for neck pain as long as the neck is kept in a neutral position. This is trickier to accomplish with neck soreness and pain because having a pillow that is too high or too low for optimal alignment will be all too easy. In addition, raising your hands above your head or switching positions is just more likely to worsen neck pain if you’re sleeping on your side.
Sleeping in a Reclined Position
A reclined position, such as on a recliner, can be good or bad for the neck. Office workers who recline for a nap might have a few neck problems afterward; however, sleeping all night long in an uncomfortable reclining chair unsuitable for your size or shape could be disastrous.
The best option for a stiff neck and back pain when sleeping in these kinds of reclining chairs is to make sure to have a pillow sitting beneath your knees. This reduces all-around spine strain and can improve neck pain better than sleeping without knee support.
Q: What is the best sleep position for neck pain?
The best sleeping position for neck pain is supine (on your back) with a medium-height pillow and arms folded across your chest or along your sides. If you have neck problems, avoid sleeping on your stomach, and remember that the entire spine needs to remain aligned and supported while sleeping.
Q: What should I do if my neck still hurts after changing sleep positions?
Talk to your doctor if you have chronic neck pain that leaves you with residual soreness each morning. It’s okay to try changing positions during the night to ease pain, but if you must do this regularly to stay comfortable, your sleep will be disrupted too often, and the temporary pain relief you get from shifting positions will not be worth the added effort of waking up to change your sleeping position.
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- Lee, W. H., & Ko, M. S. (2017). Effect of sleep posture on neck muscle activity. Journal of physical therapy science, 29(6), 1021–1024. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.29.1021.
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- Why Does Neck Pain Occur When Sitting in Your Recliner Chair? https://www.autonomous.ai/ourblog/can-recliners-hurt-your-neck.