Sleeping with Neck Pain: What You Need to Know

Is your neck pain keeping you awake at night? These three tips can help alleviate your discomfort so you can get some much-needed rest.

See Chronic Pain and Insomnia: Breaking the Cycle

woman struggling with insomnia There are several steps you can take to help alleviate chronic neck pain and get a better night's rest.
Practicing Good Sleep Hygiene

1. Match your pillow height with your sleeping position

When you lie down to sleep, you want a pillow that supports the natural curve of your neck. If your pillow is too high, you can strain your neck muscles and obstruct your breathing. On the other hand, you’re also at risk for strained neck muscles if your pillow is too low.

Watch: Pillows and Positions for Easing Neck Pain Video

To help ease the stress on your neck, follow these guidelines for choosing the correct pillow based on your preferred sleeping position:

  • Back Sleepers. In general, if you sleep on your back it’s best to use a thin pillow. There is no single pillow height that works for all back sleepers, but you can test if a pillow is right for you by lying down on the pillow and having a friend take a picture of the curve of your neck. Ideally, the curve of your neck will look similar to when you're standing with good posture—or when you're standing tall with your head up and shoulders back.
  • See Different Types of Pillows

  • Side Sleepers. If you sleep on your side, you typically need a thicker pillow than back sleepers to ensure your neck and head are positioned in the middle of your shoulders. Your height and the width of your shoulders will help determine the kind of pillow you ought to buy—so if you’re petite you will need a slimmer pillow than if you’re broad-shouldered.
  • See Pillow Types to Consider

  • Stomach Sleepers. Avoid sleeping on your stomach because this position places the most stress on your neck muscles. If you can’t sleep any other way, try using an ultra-slim pillow or foregoing a pillow altogether.
  • See Best Pillows for Different Sleeping Positions

If you’re a back or side sleeper, you may also benefit from placing a small roll-shaped pillow under your neck for additional support—or you can simply use a rolled-up towel.

See Pillows for Neck Pain

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2. Ditch your phone

While lying in bed each night, you probably spend at least a few minutes browsing on your phone. You may not think anything of it, but here’s how this bad habit can provoke neck pain that may hinder your sleep:

  • Your neck muscles are designed to support your head in a neutral position—meaning that your head should be balanced over your spine. This neutral position typically results in 10-12 pounds of force on your neck muscles.
  • Watch: Cervical Spine Anatomy and Neck Pain

  • When you look down at your phone, your head may tilt at an angle of up to 60 degrees. This sharp angle produces 60 pounds of force, which in turn strains your neck muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
  • Watch: Neck Strains and Sprains Video

Not only can phone use lead to neck pain, or what is commonly referred to as text neck, but the blue light your phone emits inhibits sleep by blocking your body’s release of melatonin. If you have to look at your phone in bed, it’s best to hold it at eye level and limit screen time to only a few minutes.

See How to Avoid Neck Pain from Texting

It’s important to remember that reading a book or completing a crossword puzzle in bed can also place added stress on your neck muscles.

See Psychological Techniques, Sleep Environment, and Better Sleep

cervical spine vetegrae Stretching exercises can relieve some of the stiffness that leads to neck pain. See Neck Exercises for Neck Pain

3. Stretch your neck before bed

If you spend a large portion of your day sitting in a chair, slouching or any number of other poor posture habits can tighten your neck muscles and provoke neck pain. This pain can persist well into the evening and make it difficult to fall asleep at night.

See Office Chair, Posture, and Driving Ergonomics

Stretching your neck loosens your tight muscles and may help relieve your pain. Here is one easy neck stretch you can try before bed to loosen your levator scapula muscle (the muscle that connects your neck to your shoulder blade):

  • Position yourself perpendicular to a wall—allowing for roughly 12 inches of space between your shoulder and the wall.
  • Raise your arm as high as you can over your head. After several seconds, angle your arm towards the wall so that your elbow and the palm of your hand are flush against it.
  • Turn your head away from the wall and bring your chin down towards the floor until you feel a slight stretch in the back of your neck. Next, place your free hand on the top of your head and pull your head forward to slightly increase the stretch.
  • Hold this final position for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

See Neck Strengthening Exercises

Make sure to consult with your doctor if you’re neck pain interrupts your sleep for more than a week. She or he may be able to recommend a comprehensive treatment plan to help you regain control over your sleep schedule.

See Addressing Pain and Medical Problems Disrupting Sleep

Learn More:

How to Avoid Text Neck Overuse Syndrome

Chronic Neck Pain: What Condition Is Causing My Neck Pain?

Post written by Andrew Moeller