While it may just “go away” with time, that isn’t always the best option when it comes to waking up with neck pain from sleeping wrong.
Written by Coach Todd
“I’ll be okay. I just slept on it wrong,” you say, rubbing your neck vigorously as if somehow that will ease your stiffness.
People spend roughly one-third of their lives sleeping — or attempting to sleep.
However, your sleep position matters more than just how many hours under the covers you get. This is a key component of sleep quality, helping you to wake refreshed and pain-free.
When you sleep with poor posture or are constantly disrupted during those critical snooze times, neck stiffness and sore backs are sure to occur.
How Neck Stiffness Develops During Sleep
While there are many ways a stiff neck can develop, both while awake and asleep, here are the 3 most common:
Sleeping at an Awkward Angle
During sleep, your head or neck may settle at an awkward angle for an extended period of time, causing muscles, ligaments, and joints to stretch and strain beyond their normal limits. For example, sleeping on your stomach but twisting your neck so the side of your face hits the pillow.
Sudden Movement During Sleep
Traditionally, the section of your brain that controls movements shut off when we sleep. However, as you slip from REM to non-REM sleep, movements can occur. Whether from constantly rolling or reacting to an intense dream, sudden neck movements while sleeping can strain or sprain the neck ligaments or muscles.
Aggravating a Preexisting Injury
Some injuries that happen while awake, such as whiplash, may take many hours before pain and stiffness to develop. Many times, it can emerge when you sleep, as inflammation settles into the injured joints.
How Long Does Neck Pain from Sleeping Wrong Last?
The answer to this is everyone’s least favorite to here — it depends.
While some stiffness may improve shortly after applying treatments, others may take a day or two before noticeable pain relief is achieved. However, if addressed immediately, the average neck stiffness relief can be found within a week’s time.
But what do you do in the meantime? Just go about your day in pain, with your neck tilted? No!
Remember, this stiffness must be addressed immediately to find the fastest relief. Although time can be beneficial for a sore or stiff neck developed through an acute injury, movement is the best way to speed the healing process.
As well, taking action now will cut down on the risk you wake up with neck pain again.
Here’s How to Relieve Neck Pain From Sleeping Wrong
Gentle Neck Exercises for Stiffness
Yes, these are gentle exercises for a reason. The neck and spine are sensitive joints, connected to almost all the nerves within the body. So it is important not to push into increased pain. You will experience some discomfort but if one movement causes your pain to increase, back off.
Towel Assisted Look-ups
Sit upright in a chair. Put a towel around your neck, holding tight with both hands.
Gently lean your head back as you keep the towel stable with your hands. Use the towel to guide your head back to the starting position.
Repeat 10 times.
Towel Assisted Rotation
In that same starting position as exercise #1, pull down on the towel with the left hand and guide your head to the right by lifting that side’s towel up and over.
Gently return to the starting position.
Repeat 5 times to both directions.
This time, without the towel, sit in the same starting position. Now, imagine a string being pulled from the top/crown of your head through the ceiling. Tuck your chin backward slightly.
Then slowly tilt your head to the right by bringing your ear closer to your shoulder. Return to the starting position.
Repeat 5 times to both sides.
Neck Pain Prevention
As with any injury, the best form of healing begins with prevention. To help prevent neck pain when you wake up (and stop it from turning into a chronic problem), practice good sleep hygiene to support your neck and reduce the strain on your neck muscles.
The following are some tips to incorporate to increase your sleep hygeine:
Adjust Your Sleep Position
If you usually sleep on your stomach, try sleeping on your side or back instead. Sleeping on your back allows for gravity to naturally align your spine and keep it protected throughout the night.
However, if you struggle with snoring or sleep apnea, lying on your side may be best. If you sleep on your side, try putting a pillow between your legs to keep your neck aligned with your spine.
Adjust Your Sleep Environment
Avoid using a pillow that is too stiff or too deep. This can cause your neck muscles to be flexed overnight. Try using a feather pillow, which can conform easily to the shape of your neck and head.
Note, feather pillows tend to lose their shape over time, so it’s best to replace them every year or two. Pillows made with “memory foam” can also conform to the contours of your head and neck, and can help keep your neck supported.
If your mattress is sagging in the middle, consider replacing it with a medium-firm mattress that can support your back and neck. The key is to create a sleep environment where all the joints (especially those in the spine and neck) are supported for extended periods of time so they may relax and heal.
Adjust Your Daytime Routine
During the day, maintain good posture when standing, walking, and sitting — particularly when at a desk or using a computer. Avoid hunching your shoulders and bending your neck too far forward as this can cause unrealized strain on the joints.
As well, try holding your phone at eye level instead of bending your neck forward to look at it or tucking your phone between your ear and your shoulder to take a call.
Another daytime routine to improve is exercise. Regular physical activity can help strengthen your muscles, including those in your neck. It can also help improve your posture and relieve stress that may be causing tension/stiff muscles.
In combination with these daily changes, the previous gentle neck exercises may help reduce and relieve neck pain upon waking. Remember to start slow and ease into each movement to avoid stressing the ligaments, tendons, and joints further.
When pain starts to decrease, you can add in these neck strengthening exercises.