Waking up with pain or soreness in your neck is a real pain in the neck!
Most would agree that mornings can be difficult enough-waking up earlier than you would like, rushing around to get to work, getting the kids to school on time, sitting in endless traffic. When you throw in excruciating neck pain or stiffness, it can really make your mornings miserable.
We all know that sharp, shooting pain that occurs when you turn your head too quickly. It can be momentarily paralyzing. Now imagine cracking open your eyes in the morning only to be met with similar pain radiating through your neck. Not a pleasant way to start the day.
Why does this happen? And what can be done to prevent it? In an effort to enjoy more pain-free mornings, we’re going to investigate all things related to waking up with a sore neck.
What Causes Morning Neck Pain?
Waking up with a sore or stiff neck can be the result of several different things, most of them well within your control. Morning neck soreness can indeed stem from simply getting older and dealing with general wear and tear, but commonly there’s a more specific culprit.
Sleeping in a position that puts strain on your neck is the most common cause for morning neck soreness. It even has its own scientific name, Adult or Acquired Torticollis.
To better understand how your sleeping position can impact the state of your neck when you wake up, it’s important to recognize that your neck is actually part of your spine. It’s referred to as the cervical portion of your spine.
As with the rest of your spine, the cervical portion has joints that rest in between the vertebrae. Falling asleep with your head or neck situated in a way that irritates these joints will result in morning neck pain.
Mike Reinold, P.T., C.S.C.S., a Boston-based physical therapist and performance enhancement specialist says, “When you sleep, the weight of your head can relax in an awkward position that irritates these joints.1” When these joints get irritated, your body will likely have an inflammatory response or produce muscle spasms in an attempt to protect and prevent movement in that area.
Sleeping in positions that cause your head to bend at extreme angles such as too far forwards, backwards, or turned to one side, are surefire ways to wake with a sore neck. Sleeping on your stomach is especially harsh on your spine and neck because of the way that it forces your back to arch and your neck to drastically face one direction.
On average, neck pain due to a less than ideal sleeping position will last for 4 to 7 days. Fortunately, the pain faster with proper treatment, which we will discuss a bit later on.
Poor Pillow Choice
Considering that we spend one third of our life with our head resting on it, choosing the proper pillow should be a priority. The type of pillow that you choose to sleep on each night can have a significant impact on morning neck stiffness or soreness. Ideally, your pillow should position your head in a neutral and healthy position. Your nose should line up with your spine and be centered with your body. Using a pillow that’s too thick or chunky can cause your head to be unnaturally angled upwards. On the other end of the spectrum, using a pillow that’s too flat or worn out can cause your head to bend too far downwards.Additionally, or sleeping with too many pillows should also be avoided. This tends to have the same effect as a pillow that is too thick, causing your head to angle upwards.
The consistency of your pillow is also important. A pillow that is too stiff may cause your neck muscles to remain flexed throughout the night. The result of which is serious neck soreness in the morning.
Not all pillows are created equal, and using the incorrect pillow for you can result in waking with a stiff neck.
Poor Sleep Quality
We all know how important it is to get ample amount of restorative sleep each night. Getting a good night’s sleep impacts so many aspects of our health and wellness. Poor sleep quality is commonly known to negatively affect weight, mood, and cardiovascular health, among other things.
But many people aren’t aware of the fact that poor sleep quality is more than just a pain in the neck-it can be the cause of your neck pain.
Research has suggested that how well you sleep can impact musculoskeletal pain, especially in your neck and back. One study in particular compared the musculoskeletal pain experienced by 4,140 healthy men and women with and without sleeping problems.
Study participants who experienced sleep problems such as difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, waking early in the mornings, and non-restorative sleep were found to be at a significantly higher risk for developing chronic musculoskeletal pain (your sore neck) after one year compared to those who did not struggle with sleep.2
Medical professionals attribute the connection between poor sleep quality and morning neck or back soreness to the fact that sleep disturbances disrupt the natural healing and relaxing of muscles during sleep.
Unfortunately, morning neck pain caused by poor sleep quality can spawn a vicious cycle. You fail to get adequate sleep which causes neck pain which causes you to sleep poorly which causes more neck pain…and round and round the cycle goes.
A Cool Breeze
I love nothing more than sleeping with my window wide open and feeling the breeze flow over my skin. In fact, I honestly can’t sleep without the window open. I was not pleased to find out that this sleeping habit of mine might actually be causing me to have a sore neck in the morning.3
Most people sleep with their window open during the summer or spring months when the air is warm and balmy. The problem with this is that while the air may be warm at 10pm when you get into bed, around 4am that temperature tends to drop. This drastic temperature change can cause your neck muscles to react by stiffening or cramping up.
This means that while you are enjoying that fresh breeze from sleeping with your windows open you probably won’t enjoy the uncomfortable stiffness that you feel in your neck by morning.
But it’s not just your open windows that can your stiff neck. The source of the breeze could just as easily your bedroom fan or an air-conditioning vent.
Strenuous Daytime Activity
It makes sense that what you do while you sleep contributes to how your neck feels in the morning. But what you do during the day prior to sleep can also have an effect on the stiffness that you experience in your neck upon waking up.
Engaging in activities that venture outside of your normal routine on any given day may give you a painful neck the next morning. If you typically spend your days sitting, anything that causes your body to move in significantly different ways might make you sore.4
Things like gardening, packing up and moving a home or furniture, strenuous new exercise routines, or even riding a roller coaster may put strain on your neck that it isn’t used to.
While you may not experience soreness in your neck right away, you will likely feel it the next morning.
Underlying Medical Issue
Most of the reasons that you wake up with a sore neck are based on your environment or things that you do. If you notice that you’re chronically waking up with a sore neck but have ruled out all of the above reasons, you may have an underlying medical condition.
Various cervical spine disorders can cause serious pain and stiffness in your neck. Spinal Stenosis (a disorder that puts pressure on the spinal cord and the nerves within the spine) or Cervical Disc Disorder (a condition where discs between vertebrae have a loss of cushioning, fragmentation and herniation related to aging) are two of the most common cervical spine disorders that might be causing your sore neck in the morning. Discuss the possibility of these with your doctor if you suspect that you may be suffering from one of these disorders.
A less common medical issue that can be linked to a sore morning neck is an infection such as meningococcal disease. While this type of infection is pretty rare, it tends to cause a very sore neck. If you are experiencing symptoms such as vomiting, headaches, or a fever in addition to waking up with a sore neck, contact your doctor immediately to investigate a possible infection.
How to Prevent Morning Neck Pain
There are a variety of simple measures that you can take to significantly reduce your risk of morning neck soreness. Even if you don’t have morning neck pain, following these basic guidelines can help ensure that you continue to wake up pain-free.
Change Your Sleeping Position
An improper sleeping position is the most common cause for waking up with neck stiffness or soreness. While it seems like this would be easy enough to fix by simply altering the position in which you sleep, it can be challenging to break old habits. If you have slept on your stomach for years, it may take some time to get used to a new sleeping position.
There are two sleeping positions that are ideal for keeping your neck and spine aligned and comfortable while you sleep: sleeping on your back or on your side.
If you choose to sleep on your back, often called the supine position, choosing a pillow that promotes comfortably sleeping in this position might help. You want to look for something that is round and supports the curvature of your neck.
If you choose to sleep on your side, you will want to choose a pillow that is higher under your neck than your head. This will help you keep your head, neck, and spine in a straight line. Placing a pillow in between your knees is also a good idea if you choose to sleep on your side.
It is next to impossible to guarantee that whatever position you get in while falling asleep is the position that you will stay in through the night. But by continuing to fall asleep in a healthy position for your neck, you stand a better chance of waking up pain free than if you fall asleep on your stomach.
Replace Your Pillow
If you know that your sleeping position is not contributing to your morning neck pain, then you might want to examine your pillow situation. If you have had your current pillow for more than two years then no questions asked, it is time for an upgrade.
A feather pillow can work for a back or side sleeper due to its ability to easily mold to the shape of your neck. While feather pillows can be fairly affordable and quite comfortable, they do tend to wear out after about a year and will need to be replaced.
A great option for neck health no matter what position you sleep in is a memory foam pillow. The highly malleable yet supportive memory foam molds to fit the contours of your neck and head. Memory foam pillows do a superb job of keeping your neck aligned with the rest of your body.
Cervical or chiropractic pillows are specially designed with a contour in them that assists with properly supporting your neck. Often made from memory foam, these pillows naturally align your spine and can significantly reduce morning neck pain.
Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Practicing proper sleep hygiene is something that should be done regularly whether you experience neck pain or not. However, being mindful of your sleep hygiene can certainly reduce your likelihood for morning neck soreness.
Sleep hygiene involves maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding too much caffeine or alcohol before bed, staying active on a daily basis, keeping your bedroom free from electronics, and creating a cool, dark, and quiet sleep environment.
Every single one of these factors play an important role in allowing you to achieve restful and restorative sleep each night. Ensuring that you get between 7-9 hours of sleep is crucial in allowing your body to heal and rejuvenate. You should aim to get in bed around the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning, even on the weekends. Proper sleep hygiene can even help prevent oversleeping.
Spending time with your face buried in a tablet or cell phone prior to bed not only negatively affects your ability to fall asleep, but it can put strain on your neck. This is referred to as text-neck and can cause real stiffness in the morning.Improving your sleep hygiene can positively effect so many aspects of your health and wellness including preventing waking up with a sore neck. A good way to determine if you need to improve your sleep hygiene is to calculate your sleep efficiency.
Treating Existing Morning Neck Pain
Just woke up with a crick in your neck? Don’t panic. While prevention is important, the first thing you will want to do is treat the stiff neck you just woke up with. Here are some remedies to do just that.
Streeeeetch It Out
The easiest and most common method for dealing with morning neck pain is patience and careful movements.
If you wake up with a sore neck the worst things that you can do are either not move it at all or rush and too aggressively stretch your neck muscles. Your muscles likely need time to heal which you can promote with gentle and specific movements.
Try some of the following exercises while keeping in mind that you want to move slowly and only perform these exercises in a pain-free range.
Small Circles – Start by moving your head in a circular motion. These circles should be very small when you begin and can grow over time. If moving in circles causes too much pain, or any pain really, start with gently tilting your head side to side. Do this for about ten minutes but make sure to slow down or stop if pain increases.
Side to Side – If you complete small circles without pain, try gently lowering your head to one side. You should feel no pain, though you may feel a small stretch. If you can let you head rest on one side without pain, use you hand to apply gentle pressure. Hold this pressure for about 30 seconds and do 6 reps on each side.
Massage with Ball – Rather than simply rubbing your neck with your hands, find a small ball (like a tennis ball). The best way to do this is by standing against a wall with the ball in between your neck and the wall. Move your body slowly so that the ball rolls around and puts gentle pressure on your neck.
Heat or Ice
Heat is known for alleviating tension in tight or sore muscles. The application of heat can help muscles relax. When applying heat to the neck, moist heat may be more effective than dry heat.
Use a moist heating pad (available at most drugstores) and keep heat on your neck for approximately 20 minutes daily to alleviate neck soreness. You can also try taking a warm shower and allowing the water stream to focus on your neck.
Ice or cold temperatures are used for dulling or numbing pain. Ice also tends to limit the buildup of lactic acid in muscles which is generally responsible for soreness. Place an ice pack on your sore neck for approximately 10-15 minutes every two hours until pain subsides. Just avoid falling asleep with an ice pack on your neck at night
If you are working with your doctor to manage morning neck pain, he/she may prescribe muscle relaxants or painkillers that can assist in managing your neck pain.
For those who have not sought professional medical attention for their morning neck pain, over-the-counter pain medication and anti-inflammatory pills may help with morning neck soreness. Using ibuprofen or acetaminophen may temporarily help reduce the pain and swelling in your neck.
When morning neck pain regularly interferes with your daily life, it may be time to investigate physical therapy.
Physical therapists will likely use a technique called Neuromuscular re-education when addressing your sore morning neck. They may perform passive range of motion (ROM) exercises in the pain-free range, or use techniques involving gentle isometric contraction in order to treat your neck pain.
These types of treatments work to reproduce your pain in an effort to re-set the normal muscle reflexes. This is similar to re-programming a computer that may have malfunctioned.
We can all agree that waking up with pain of any kind is unpleasant and can easily ruin your morning!
Do you wake up with morning neck pain or soreness? What preventative measures or treatments have worked for you? Share your thoughts and comments here and let’s all work towards pain-free mornings!