Almost everybody has experienced a sore or stiff neck at some point. The World Health Organization lists back and neck pain as one of the most common disabling muscle or bone injuries, along with arthritis and bone fractures.
At any given time, about 10 to 20 percent of adults deal with symptoms of neck pain. Neck pain often goes away on its own, but in about 50 percent of cases, it becomes a chronic problem.
A sore neck can make getting a restful night’s sleep difficult. But making a few adjustments to the way you sleep can help you manage your neck pain and prevent you from spending hours in poor positions overnight.
Let’s examine which sleeping positions are most likely to help you manage your neck pain. We’ll also take a look at what else you can do before bed to help minimize discomfort.
The position that you sleep in is strongly related to the quality of your sleep. If you’re dealing with neck discomfort, the best positions for sleep are on your back or side. These are both less stressful on your spine than sleeping on your stomach.
It may be difficult to change your sleeping position, since your preferred position is often determined early in life. However, over time, you’ll become more comfortable as the new position becomes familiar.
Most people move around in the middle of the night, so having extra pillows around can help you stay comfortable even if you shift.
Sleeping on your back
Sleeping on your back helps maintain your spine’s natural curves. You can use a thinner pillow in this position than you would when sleeping on your side. Your head position should be only slightly raised so that it’s at a similar angle as when you’re standing.
Using a cervical pillow or a memory foam pillow can help support your head or neck. If you regularly snore or deal with sleep apnea, you may want to try sleeping on your side instead of your back.
Sleeping on your side
Sleeping on your side is one of the best ways to keep your head neutral, with your chin straight ahead. When sleeping in this position, it’s a good idea to use a pillow high enough to keep your neck neutral but not so high that your upper ear is forced toward your shoulder.
Avoid sleeping on your stomach
If you’re dealing with neck pain, it’s a good idea to avoid sleeping on your stomach. In this position, your head is forced to one side for hours at a time. This faulty alignment can put excess stress on your neck.
Your spine naturally arches in three places. It curves forward at your neck and lower back. It curves the other way in your upper back. Setting up your bed to best maintain these natural curves can help you minimize neck or back pain.
Many people find that using a memory foam helps them manage their neck pain. A 2019 study found that combining a viscoelastic polyurethane memory foam pillow with chiropractic treatment was more effective than chiropractic treatment alone.
You can also try using a soft feather pillow that forms to your head or a pillow with cervical support.
If you sleep on your back:
- Use a thin pillow. A thin pillow lets you keep your upper spine in its natural position with a slight forward curve.
- Try a cervical pillow. A cervical pillow supports your neck and head to keep them in a neutral position.
- Use a supportive mattress. If your mattress is too soft, you may find that you sink into it and your back rounds.
When sleeping on your side:
- Avoid overly high pillows. Ideally, your pillow should be a height that keeps your ears stacked vertically over each other. If your pillow is too high or low, your neck will bend and you may develop pain over time.
- Keep chin neutral. Try to avoid tucking your chin if you’re sleeping in the fetal position. Tucking your chin positions your head forward.
- Try putting a pillow between your knees. Putting a pillow between your knees helps keep your lower spine in alignment.
How to sleep with a stiff neck and shoulder or back
To avoid aggravating a sore shoulder, it’s a good idea to sleep either on your opposite side or your back. If you’re on your back, you can try putting a pillow next to your sore shoulder to discourage yourself from rolling that direction in the middle of the night.
For back pain, you should avoid sleeping on your stomach. Sleeping on your stomach puts excess stress on your vertebrae. Some positions that you may find help relieve your pain include:
- sleeping on your back slightly reclined
- sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees
- sleeping in the fetal position
- sleeping with a pillow between your knees
A 2015 study found that people with chronic neck pain are less likely to improve if they experience poor sleep quality. Making sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best ways to heal from neck pain.
Ibuprofen may help reduce your pain if you’re dealing with an acute issue. Make sure you don’t take it on an empty stomach, don’t exceed more than 1,200 milligrams in 1 day, and don’t take it longer than 10 days unless approved by a doctor.
Some people find that heat and ice also helps them manage their pain. You can alternate between the two, depending on which provides more relief.
Gently stretching your neck before bed and when you first wake up may also help you manage your pain.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the following stretches may help:
- Roll your shoulder back and down 10 times.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together 10 times.
- Push the back of your head into your hands for 30 seconds.
- Bring each ear to your shoulder 10 times.
Neck pain becomes more common as you get older and the muscles in your neck weaken. No matter your age, spending too much time in bad postures can lead to pain. Some ways you can prevent neck pain from starting include:
- Sit and stand with good posture as much as possible.
- Try using a horseshoe-shaped pillow on planes and other transport.
- Take frequent breaks from long periods of sitting.
- Put your computer monitor at eye level.
- Stretch regularly.
- Hold your phone in front of your face instead of looking down.
- Avoid carrying heavy bags with a strap.
- Avoid sleeping on your stomach.
Almost everybody will experience a sore neck at some point. Sleeping on your side or back can help you keep the stress off your neck and manage pain. You should avoid sleeping on your stomach if possible. Sleeping on your stomach puts your neck at an awkward angle that may make your pain worse.