Causes for Neck and Back Pain During Sleep


Going to sleep feeling good but waking up with neck and back pain from sleep can mean something is off with your sleeping position. It could mean your pillow is holding your head in an awkward position. It could mean you’re sleeping in a position that twists your neck for an extended period of time. However, the pain experienced when you wake up could also be the result of other conditions. Let’s explore some of the common causes of waking up with neck and back pain as well as some ways to find relief. 

14 Common Causes of Waking Up With Neck and Back Pain

While waking up with neck and back pain is usually caused by poor sleep posture or using the wrong pillow, there are other possible causes. These other potential causes of post-sleep neck and back pain include:

  1. Bone spurs in the neck and spine area
  2. Bruxism, or teeth grinding
  3. Carrying heavy items on one side, such as a heavy tote bag or stack of books
  4. Extended periods of immobility
  5. Herniated disc
  6. Nerve injury
  7. Osteoarthritis
  8. Overused muscles, or muscle strain
  9. Past injuries
  10. Poor posture
  11. Sleeping on your stomach with the neck twisted
  12. Sudden movements that lead to pulled muscles
  13. Unsupportive pillow that creates neck tension
  14. Wearing heavy jewelry on your ears or neck

Is It Your Sleep Posture, Pillow, or Mattress Causing Neck and Back Pain?

When you’re looking for sleep modifications to ease your back or neck pain, your sleep posture, pillow and mattress are good places to begin.

Sleep Posture: Sleeping in a posture that twists your spine or neck unnaturally for an extended time period can prevent you from enjoying the deep, restorative sleep your body needs to heal. This is partly because an unnatural sleep posture can cause your arm or hand to fall asleep. Additionally, poor sleep posture can cause other body aches that interrupt your sleep. 

Pillow: It’s important that your pillow supports your neck while cradling your head. Memory foam and feather pillows typically offer a good level of support. However, the position you sleep in plays an important role when choosing a pillow to prevent neck pain. Side sleepers typically need to avoid soft pillows that don’t offer neck support. Stomach sleepers and back sleepers usually need to avoid firm pillows that cause too much twisting of the neck and spine. 

Mattress: If your mattress is too soft, you can sink into it and wake up feeling as if you’ve been twisted into a painful position. If it’s too hard, it may not feel as if you’re being supported everywhere. Mattress firmness is largely a matter of personal preference, but your physician is a good source of information if you feel like your mattress isn’t working for you. 

How to Avoid Neck and Back Pain During Sleep

Sleep is necessary for physical and mental recovery, and sleep posture can interfere with that type of healing. However, sleep posture can potentially be modified to support healing and stop or reduce back and neck pain. 

Improve Your Sleep Posture

Two easy ways to improve sleep posture include choosing a mattress that you find comfortable and, if you sleep with a partner, making sure you have room to roll over comfortably. Additionally, using a body pillow when sleeping is a way to support your body. The best sleeping position for lower back pain can be affected by using a body pillow to accommodate your personal sleep style. For example:

  • Back sleepers: For back sleepers, a pillow behind the knees can elevate the legs slightly to support the natural curve of the spine.
  • Side sleepers: For side sleepers, a body pillow between the knees can keep the upper leg from twisting the spine. 
  • Stomach sleepers: For stomach sleepers, a  body pillow under the lower abdomen can help keep the spine comfortably aligned. 

Avoid Fast Movements

If you wake up in the night to roll over or go to the bathroom, treat your body gently. This is to prevent injuries from strained muscles that can leave you waking up in discomfort. Roll over carefully rather than flailing around. Rise gently as you move from a supine to an upright position. 

Use a Cervical Pillow

A cervical pillow is specially designed to offer neck support while you’re sleeping. This type of pillow is usually chosen to accommodate how a person prefers to sleep, such as on the side, back or stomach. 

If you already have neck or back pain that started while you were sleeping, there are a couple of things you could try – if your doctor approves. You can try gently massaging the affected area to ease the pain. You could also practice gentle stretching, such as yoga stretches for the shoulders, back and neck, to loosen up tight muscles and ease the discomfort. Additionally, heat or cold, such as a heating pad, warm or cold compress, can sometimes ease this type of discomfort. 

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