Let’s talk about one of the most common causes of neck and shoulder pain – sleeping! However, to be clear it’s not just sleeping, but the way we sleep (and even what we do before we sleep). Have you ever woken up in the morning with a stiff and slightly painful neck? Often it’s just an annoying ache that eases off shortly after you’ve gotten out of bed. You may not think much of it but after days of waking up feeling like this, it can become a lot more painful. It’s something that we don’t usually think about, but one of the most important things to consider is the effect that sleeping can have upon our neck and shoulders.
Let me explain: An increase in neck or shoulder pain is a common problem that many people experience as a direct result of resting in an unnatural position for hours at a time. It can often be due to either an old mattress which needs replacing or simply using the wrong type of pillow. Why? Because having your neck twisted or bent in an unnatural position for long periods of time isn’t good for the body! Especially because your body will eventually become accustomed to certain sleeping positions leading to increased neck pain. But as mentioned, it’s not only down to the way we sleep…
As something I’ve been eluding too, nightly habits will play a role into neck pain. For example, watching TV before falling asleep, reading a book, or simply scrolling through your phone can all impact neck pain. These can all play a role simply because the head is rarely supported properly, causing a lot of strain on the muscles – leading to aches and pains in your neck. True story; a patient of mine arrived in my clinic telling me that she hurt her neck because of driving all weekend, (that’s what she thought anyway). After I took a closer look, one or two questions led me to the conclusion that made the most sense… That the root cause of her neck pain was because of looking up at a TV screen on the wall before sleeping, and then sleeping with two pillows in a twisted position. So the solution to waking up refreshed and pain-free? Well first, if you like to read or watch your favorite TV show before drifting off, take a look at how you’re sitting. Do you prop yourself up with several pillows behind you with your neck either bent forwards, or straining to look up? If yes, place yourself into a neutral position tonight instead, where your arms are supported and your neck is kept straight in-line with your back.
What helps our patients is when they think of having a piece of string attached to the top of their head keeping them upright. After a while, the pressure on their neck should begin to ease off. Another thing for when you get your shut-eye, think about the way you sleep. Do you sleep on your stomach, back, or your side? My tip is to avoid sleeping on your stomach as this forces your head to be twisted into an unnatural position. Instead try sleeping on your back. This way your body is kept nicely in line and your spine is supported. One more thing, you might think sleeping on your back is all well and good, but it won’t change a thing if your pillows aren’t helping your neck. Sleeping with more than one pillow behind your head can place your neck into an awkward position. When sleeping on your back it’s important to find a pillow that doesn’t tilt your head forwards or backwards.
The takeaway? It’s important to sleep in a position you find comfortable but one that also supports your body at the same time. Experimenting with different sleeping positions won’t do you any harm if your neck and back aren’t twisted. I used to sleep with two pillows all the time, on my side with my legs twisted all over the place! But since changing the way I rest I’m much better to get a good night’s sleep if my neck rests on its own normal position, and I no longer wake up feeling like I’ve done acrobatics in my sleep! Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
The author, Jennifer Penrose, is a Physical Therapist and owner of Penrose Physical Therapy. If you have any questions about neck and shoulder pain or headaches, you can call on (360) 456-1444 or email email@example.com