If you suffer from neck pain, sleeping soundly at night can be, well, a pain in the neck. As a person whose neck gets super finicky - all it takes is a quick swivel in the wrong direction, an overzealous yoga pose, or a stressful day - I often toss and turn trying to find a comfortable position. I'm also guilty of recruiting at least half a dozen pillows to prop up my head and arms and hips. And yet, the elusive holy grail of a perfect sleep position to avoid neck pain evades me!
The truth is, maintaining a healthy neck starts from the moment you open your eyes in the morning. According to the Mayo Clinic, certain daily habits promote a pain-free neck and spine, such as using good posture and avoiding stress, as well as not carrying heavy bags with a shoulder strap. When it's time for bed, alignment of your neck and spine are key to keep neck pain at bay. Sleeping on your back with your thighs elevated on pillows flattens the spinal muscles and is your best bet for waking up without a crick in your neck. Harvard Health adds that incorporating a rounded pillow into your sleep routine can support the natural curve of the neck and lessens neck strain while you snooze. Here's everything you need to know about getting a restful night's sleep that's easy on your neck.
Why Should You Sleep on Your Back?
"Sleeping on your back can help keep the stress off your neck and manage pain levels as long as you make sure to use a pillow that supports the curvature of your back and a flatter pillow to cushion your head," explained Gbolahan Okubadejo, MD, FAAOS, a New York City-based spinal and orthopedic surgeon.
"When you sleep on your back, your weight is evenly distributed and spans the widest area of the body," Dr. Okubadejo told POPSUGAR. "This results in less strain on pressure points. You're also able to get better alignment of your spine and your internal organs." Less pressure and more alignment means a happier neck and a happier you.
What If You Can't Sleep on Your Back?
No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot fall asleep lying on my back. For folks like me who also suffer from occasional neck strain and spasms, side sleeping may be your savior. Side sleeping is the most common sleep position, but you should avoid tucking your bottom arm under your pillow, as this position may cause neck pain. That said, positioning your arms in front of your body supports proper spine alignment, extending up to the neck.
Dr. Okubadejo advises side sleepers to use a taller pillow underneath the neck, which ensures your neck and head stay aligned. "This can relieve any strain on your neck and keep your spine straight," he said. The worst position for healthy spine alignment seems to be sleeping on your stomach, which can place your neck at an awkward angle and make the pain worse, according to Dr. Okubadejo.
How Else Can You Sleep Better With Neck Pain?
After experimenting with the best sleep positions to curb neck soreness and stiffness, consider your sleep environment. Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests replacing an old mattress and pillows to optimize the comfort of your neck and spine.
Ultimately, "the key to good sleep posture is your alignment, keeping your ears, shoulders, and hips in a straight line as much as possible," Dr. Okubadejo told POPSUGAR. "If you suffer from neck pain, you should place a pillow under your neck that provides support, like a rolled towel or cervical pillow. This way, you can avoid the natural gaps between spaces on your body and the mattress, potentially injuring your back and neck muscles."
Dr. Okubadejo added that using a feather pillow or memory foam pillow that can easily conform to the shape of your neck is also a great option, noting that they will need to be replaced every year or so to make sure they're not getting too flattened out (your head is heavy, after all!). Finding a supportive pillow can be a great way to foster proper spinal alignment.
If none of these solutions offer relief, it's time to seek medical attention, especially when your neck pain gets worse over the course of a week rather than better. Accompanying, troubling symptoms to stay vigilant about include numbness or tingling in the arms, headache, fever, and dizziness, which indicate it's time to see a doctor.