The most common explanation I hear, by far, from people who wake up with neck pain is: “I must have slept wrong.” If you went to bed feeling fine, but woke up with neck pain, your sleeping position is likely the least of your worries. Don’t blame your neck pain on your pillow.
While the pain will often subside as your body adapts to whatever went wrong, that doesn’t mean the issue is resolved–it just means your body found a way to work around the glitch until the next time.
The problem usually has to do with what’s happening to your spine during the day (unless you share your bed with children or pets, and then all bets are off!). Inflammation that you aren’t aware of during the day can build up at night. When you go to sleep, you take away one of the more effective ways of ridding the body of excess inflammatory fluids: movement. Because the relative motionlessness of sleep can allow these fluids to accumulate beyond a certain threshold, you wake up with pain and stiffness the next morning.
When situations during the day are less than ideal, your pillow can make a difference. But if all systems–mechanical, emotional and biochemical–are in balance during your waking hours, then it matters less what position you assume while sleeping.
Avoid that pain in the neck through these tips:
- Manage your inflammatory triggers.Drink plenty of water throughout the day and go easy on inflammatory foods, such as red meat, alcohol, sugars, and dairy products. Allergens in the air, like pollen and animal dander, also can add to the inflammatory load in our body tissues, which can add up and result in pain that shows up seemingly out of the blue.
- Take care of your nervous system.A sedentary lifestyle, paradoxically, aggravates the nervous system. In order to help your muscles relax through the night, you need to tire them out safely on a daily basis. Also, magnesium-rich foods, such as leafy greens, are known natural muscle relaxants.
- Practice good sleep habits.Wind down your day well before bedtime. If your mind is still racing from the events of the day, set aside 10-20 minutes to clear it through meditation or sitting quietly and focusing on long, rhythmic breathing. Avoid any stimulants, such as caffeine, chocolate, and alcohol, along with any emotionally upsetting conversations or TV shows close to bedtime. Try to sleep lying face up for a good part of the night (the best position for the spine) with a pillow that mimics the neck’s natural alignment with the spine.
- Give any pain its due respect.A stiff neck, even if it’s not from a distinct injury, is your spine’s equivalent of an ankle sprain. If you sprain your ankle, you know to stay off of it, elevate it, and apply ice to it, right? A stiff neck is undergoing a very similar process. Gravity is providing stressful pressure anytime you’re sitting or standing, so lying down with a rolled up towel under your neck, lower back, and knees to put the spine in a neutral position is the best way to take weight off of the irritated joints. Do not stretch into the pain; this adds a mechanical stress. Apply ice even if you think your stiff muscles would prefer heat, and be sure to drink plenty of water.