Waking up with neck pain is never fun. But most of us have experienced it before—and would prefer to avoid dealing with it again in the future. So what can you do to potentially keep the problem at bay?
There’s no surefire way to avoid soreness or tightness in your neck. But sleeping in the right position, along with making some changes to your pillow and mattress setup, can make for a good night of sleep and leave you feeling better in the morning.
So what should you be doing, exactly? Here’s a look at the best sleep positions to soothe a stiff neck or stop discomfort from happening in the first place. Plus, other strategies for keeping your neck happy and what to do if the pain just won’t let up.
How can your sleep position cause neck pain?
Neck pain can have a number of different culprits. Sleeping in a strange position can certainly strain the muscles in your neck. Lay that way for several hours, and it’s no big surprise that you could end up waking in the morning with tightness or discomfort.
Of course, not all neck pain is the result of a weird night’s sleep. Poor posture, using a computer that’s positioned too high or too low, frequently staring down at your phone, or even lugging a heavy bag around can all be equally problematic. (And lead to annoying shoulder pain too.) And there’s always a chance of hurting your neck if you twist or jerk in an awkward way, which can easily happen when you’re exercising or if you lift something heavy.
Then there are the more serious causes. Car accidents and falls can lead to significant neck pain. So can spinal problems like herniated disks or bone spurs in your neck vertebrae. Simply getting older—or developing an age-related condition like arthritis—can also lead to discomfort in your neck.
And here’s the thing. Even if your neck problem didn’t start during your sleep, sleep can make your neck problem worse. That’s especially true if your head is turned all night like (which can occur from certain sleep positions) or if you snooze on a mattress or a pillow that doesn’t offer the right type of support.
The best and worst sleep positions for your neck
Pain in general can sometimes get worse at night. That’s especially true for neck pain, since craning your head or neck into a weird position while you sleep can cause your muscles to strain—and leave you stiff and sore in the morning.
Some sleep positions are more likely to strain your neck than others though. Of course, it’s ultimately about finding what’s the most comfortable for you. But if you’re open to experimenting with some changes, these positions might be worth trying.
Snoozing on your side is one solution for neck pain. Sleeping on your side tends to promote healthier neck and spinal alignment, say the National Institutes of Health. It also puts less pressure on your neck, back, and hips. In fact, a BMJ Open review of four studies concluded that side sleeping offered the most protection from spinal pain and stiffness upon waking.
Is one side better than the other? The answer seems to be yes. Left side sleepers tend to put more strain on their vital organs, according to findings published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. That suggests that sleeping on your right side might be the better choice.
Becoming a back sleeper can do good things for your neck. Laying flat on the back of your head means there’s less chance for your neck to get smushed or jammed into a weird angle that could cause straining and discomfort. As an added bonus, it’ll evenly distribute your weight to minimize pressure points on your back and hips too.
To encourage proper alignment of your entire spine, try tucking a small pillow under your knees. That’ll help maintain your spine’s natural curve, which could translate to less neck discomfort.
Sleeping on your stomach is generally considered the worst position for back, joint, or neck pain. Stomach sleepers tend to put more pressure on their backs and push their spine into an unnatural curve, both of which can promote soreness or make existing discomfort worse. Stomach sleeping also means your head will probably be turned to one side or the other for hours while you sleep, which tends to be a recipe for stiffness in the morning.
If you really love being on your belly, you could try tucking a flat pillow under your lower abdomen to encourage healthier spinal alignment. If that’s not quite enough to keep your neck comfortable though (and it might not be), it might be worth skipping stomach sleeping altogether.
More advice for neck soreness
Adjusting your sleep position is just one way to address a stiff or creaky neck. There are other steps you can take—both at night and during the day—that can help you feel more comfortable.
Upgrade your pillow.
When’s the last time you treated yourself to some fresh pillows? If you’re like most people, you might not even remember. But the right pillow can help keep your head and neck cradled in a neutral position, which can minimize turning, craning, or straining that can lead to discomfort in the morning.
The best pillows for neck pain tend to be medium-thick. Flat, thin pillows can tilt your head too far downwards, while very high pillows can push your head up. Medium-thick options keep your head and neck in a neutral position, which is the most comfortable.
As for what type? Resist the urge to pick up inexpensive polyester pillows–they don't offer great neck support. The best options for neck pain are feather or memory foam pillows, which do the best job of conforming to your neck’s natural shape and encourage your head to sit at a neutral angle. Just be sure to replace feather pillows annually, since they tend to lose their fluff over time.
Consider your mattress.
Changing your mattress isn’t as simple as switching your pillow. But when it comes to chronic pain issues including neck pain, it could make a major difference. Not only can the best mattress help minimize or relieve nighttime neck discomfort—it could very well keep it from coming back. That can add up to a lot more sleep.
Memory foam mattresses tend to be highly regarded for those dealing with neck or back pain. Why? Foam-based beds seem to do a superior job of conforming to the body’s natural curves, which could promote healthier neck and spinal alignment. That could keep you from falling into an awkward angle or position in the middle of the night—and waking up with a sore neck.
If you’re thinking about investing in a new memory foam mattress, just be sure to seek out one on the firmer side. Soft beds might feel plush, research shows that firmer surfaces provide more support and are ultimately more comfortable for people dealing with chronic joint issues like neck or back pain.
Aside from memory foam, are there any other options that might be good for achy necks? Adjustable air mattresses could also be a good fit. They were a top pick for comfort among adults with neck pain, according to a major survey conducted by Consumer Reports. Adjustable beds offer easy customization, which can allow sleepers to find the firmness or softness that’s best for their necks.
Pay attention to your posture.
Poor posture while standing or sitting could lead to neck issues or make existing pain worse. When you’re up and about, make an effort to keep your ears straight over your shoulders, and your shoulders straight over your hips. Sitting at the computer? Make sure the monitor is at eye level so you don’t have to angle your head up or down while looking at the screen. Take plenty of breaks, too, to get up and walk around.
Finally, be mindful about your phone usage. Instead of tilting your head downward to look at the screen, try holding your phone up to eye level. It’ll significantly reduce the strain on your neck and shoulders.
Neck pain tends to be characterized by stiffness that makes turning your head uncomfortable. But gentle stretching could help ease tightness, strengthen your neck muscles, and improve your overall range of motion—all of which could go a long way towards easing discomfort. Try static stretches like lowering your chin to your chest, turning your head from side to side, and stretching your ear towards your shoulders, Mayo Clinic experts recommend.
Consider seeing a physical therapist.
Chronic neck pain or pain caused by a serious injury might be more manageable with physical therapy. A physical therapist can teach you exercises to strengthen and stretch the muscles in your neck. And when done regularly, that could help easy tightness or soreness in your neck.
When to call your doctor
Neck problems can often be solved at home within a few days. But there are some instances where you’re better off looping in your provider. Neck pain that lasts for more than a few days, is severe, spreads down your arms or legs, or is accompanied by numbness or tingling could be caused by an underlying problem. Your practitioner can help you figure out what’s going on and determine the best option for treatment.