Why Does My Neck Hurt When I Wake Up?

Waking up with neck pain is a poor way to start your day. Neck pain is uncomfortable and can decrease your head’s range of motion, making simple daily tasks difficult to perform. The number of people experiencing neck pain has increased by 21.1 percent within the past 25 years. In fact, it is a leading cause of disability in individuals ages 20 to 79 years(1). Thankfully, most causes of neck soreness after sleeping are both reversible and preventable. We will review these reasons in this article and discuss how you can avoid them. This article will also go over what severe neck pain might mean and when you should see a doctor.

Why does my neck hurt after sleeping?

Neck pain is most frequently due to your sleeping position, your pillow, or other kinds of sleep disturbances. However, neck pain can also be due to an underlying condition.

Sleeping position

Sleep is essential to both mental and physical recovery, but sometimes how you sleep can cause pain(1). Likewise, the position in which you sleep at night correlates with your sleep quality, specifically with neck pain. Your sleep position, sometimes referred to as your sleeping posture, can cause certain disorders in the musculoskeletal system. Musculoskeletal disorders can affect the neck and shoulders and even cause headaches(2).

Your spine runs through your neck and down your back, and therefore, is a key player in neck functioning. Certain sleeping positions can increase the amount of pressure placed on the tissues in your spine(1). Too much stress decreases your body’s physical recovery during the night while also causing neck pain and stiffness, shoulder pain, arm pain, or headache upon wakening(2)

The most common sleeping positions amongst adults include lying on one’s back, side, or stomach. Research indicates that lying on one’s side is the most popular position, with almost 60 percent of adults sleeping with this posture1. We will discuss the best and worst sleep positions for neck pain later in the article.

Pillow

A pillow can both cause your neck pain if using the incorrect type and relieve your neck pain if using the correct type. For example, a pillow that is overly stiff or too high can flex the neck. When the neck is positioned this way for too long, it can cause stiffness and pain the next day(3).

Feather pillows often cause neck pain because they do not provide enough support. As you move throughout the night, the feathers within the pillow do too. Therefore, the neck can end up positioned incorrectly, leading to pain(4).

Sudden movements

If you make sudden movements while you sleep, this could cause neck strain. For example, you may jerk awake after a dream or toss and turn throughout the night.

Other underlying conditions

Neck pain, while most of the time mild, can indicate an underlying condition that may be serious. Other disorders that may be causing your neck pain include:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cancer
  • Nerve compression(5)

How long does neck pain last from sleeping wrong?

Neck pain that is mild to moderate in intensity should go away within three weeks. If you experience persistent pain that will not resolve on its own, you should see a healthcare professional. Additionally, if you have symptoms such as headaches, tingling, numbness, or weakness, you should seek medical attention(5).

How do I avoid & prevent neck pain when waking up?

Maintain a proper sleep position

The best sleeping positions to reduce neck pain are on your side or back(3). While lying on your back, you should maintain the normal curvature in your spine. When lying on your side, your neck should align with the upper and middle parts of your back. This positioning aims to reduce muscle stiffness and reduce the stress on your neck joint(2). Maintaining symmetry across your spine leads to fewer neck symptoms in the morning(1).

Sleeping on your stomach involves the arching of your back and turning of your head to the side. This position places stress on your spine, and therefore, may be the cause of your neck pain. It can be difficult to change your sleeping position, as you may be used to situating yourself a certain way or you may move during the night. However, it may be worth a shot to try. If you sleep on your stomach, try instead lying on your side or on your back(3).

Get a new pillow

In general, using a pillow to support your neck during sleep can improve sleep quality. Therefore, you should get a supportive pillow if you do not already use one. The type of pillow you use can determine the positioning of your body during sleep. Likewise, a pillow can affect your spine’s alignment, muscle stress, and pain. To avoid neck pain, you should select a pillow based on how you sleep(2).

If you sleep on your back, consider getting a pillow that has built-in neck support. You can also use a flat pillow and place a small neck roll within the pillowcase to bolster your neck. Regardless of what option you choose, the shape of your pillow should follow the natural curvature of your neck. Memory foam pillows are good options as they adhere to the shape of your head and neck.

If you sleep on your side, a pillow can help you to align your spine correctly. The pillow should be higher below your neck and lower below your head(3).

How do I get rid of neck pain from sleeping wrong?

Medication

If your pain is significantly impacting your ability to move or function, you may benefit from taking an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever(6). Common and effective OTC pain relievers include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin. These medications work by reducing inflammation in the body.
  • Acetaminophen (also known as Tylenol). Acetaminophen is a pain reliever.

Heat or cold

Applying something cold to your neck can help to numb the painful area, decreasing inflammation. After a day or two, you may benefit from applying heat to the same area. You can use a heating pad or take a warm bath(7).

Physical therapy

If you find that your neck pain is persistent or particularly debilitating, you may benefit from seeing a physical therapist (PT). A PT can teach you exercises to relax your neck muscles and help relieve pain and discomfort. A common neck stretch that may be helpful includes:

  • Looking straight ahead
  • Then, looking downward slightly and gently moving your head backward
  • Hold for five seconds and then repeat five times(7) 

Rest

When experiencing neck pain, it is a good idea to avoid any strenuous activity or movement while you recover. Additionally, consider during what parts of your daily routine you may strain your neck, such as reading or working on the computer. Such activities may exacerbate existing pain or cause it. Modifying your positioning during these activities can help relieve current pain and prevent future discomfort(7).

Neck and shoulder pain from sleeping wrong

In some cases, your neck pain may spread to your shoulders. This can be due to how you sleep; however, shoulder pain can also be the result of dislocation, tendonitis, or pinched nerves(5).

Severe neck pain after sleeping

Waking up with neck pain and can’t turn head

If your neck pain is so severe that you cannot move your head, you should see a doctor. In some serious cases, discomfort can indicate a serious underlying condition. For example, it could be because of a compressed nerve or arthritis. A doctor can evaluate you, suggest treatment, and in some instances recommend surgery(7).

When to see a doctor?

While neck soreness may be common, it can greatly affect your quality of life. Additionally, neck pain can persist to a point where it becomes chronic. In fact, anywhere between 25 to 60 percent of neck pain cases will become chronic. Therefore, it is important to address your symptoms as you experience them(2).

Get help from an online doctor

An online doctor provides a quick and convenient way to access a healthcare professional from the comfort of your own home. At DrHouse, we can provide you with a virtual visit with a doctor in less than 15 minutes. We also provide same day in-person visits through our app. Our app also includes an online pharmacy so that you can purchase medications immediately after your visit and get them delivered to your home. If you experience persistent neck pain, book an appointment with us today.

Key Takeaways

In summary:

  • Neck pain is a common condition with increasing prevalence over the years
  • If you experience neck pain after sleeping, it is likely due to your sleeping position or pillow
  • You can avoid future neck pain by having proper sleep posture and a supportive pillow
  • You can help relieve current neck pain with medications, heat, ice, relaxation exercises, and rest
  • If your pain is severe or persistent, consider seeking medical advice
  • For a virtual consultation with a doctor, DrHouse offers convenient online medical services

Sources

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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