Bad sleeping postures can be a pain in the neck – literally – and you don’t need to wake up on the wrong side of your bed to suffer from this common problem.
We sleep to rejuvenate our weary bodies after a long day, but waking up with neck pain is the last thing anyone expects after a good night’s rest. While pain can have a wide variety of contributing factors, waking neck pain is most often attributed to the straining of soft tissue (such as muscles, tendons or ligaments) that supports the neck during your sleep.
As we fall asleep, we position ourselves as comfortably as we can, usually making sure we’re not needlessly putting pressure on any joints or muscles; to relax. However, a position that seems comfortable while you’re awake can become an overexertion when given enough time. Even if your mind is sufficiently rested, a dull sore in the neck can severely hamper your productivity and basic routines.
If your neck hurts after getting out of bed, then it’s time to review how you position yourself in the bed.
So what is the best position to sleep in?
The best position is often what you’re already used to; after all, what is the point of sleeping if you don’t fall asleep quickly and comfortably? But if you’re frequently waking up with an aching or stiff neck it is worth noting that, with slight adjustments, most sleeping postures can be quite accommodating to neck pain.
The aim of all adjustments is to return your spine to a neutral position, so the underlying musculoskeletal structures are well supported and not overly stretched or compressed.
A common cause of neck pain for a supine sleeper tends to be the pillow height. While sleeping in a supine position can distribute your weight across the bed evenly, your pillow could be straining your neck. Having the pillow too high or too low can put the neck out of alignment with the spine, causing unnecessary strain in your neck during sleep.
A good guideline for a comfortable position on your back is to have your ears in line with your shoulders at similar height. It is best to use a pillow with medium firmness that will allow for a slight cavity to be formed, preventing your head from turning too much to one side.
If you find that your pillow is unable to support your neck comfortably, add a rolled up towel for extra cushioning. Lie with your shoulders just touching the border of the pillow. Roll up a bath towel to a thickness of 1inch. Put it in the space between the base of your skull and your shoulders. The towel should feel comfortable under your neck without feeling like your neck is bent backwards. Adjust the towel thickness as required.
Sleeping on your side allows for a natural alignment of the spine, and is the most preferred sleeping position by many. Besides making sure the pillow is adjusted to the right height (to allow for spinal alignment), avoid tucking your chin into your chest as you may in a foetal position. Again, a rolled up towel can be used to support the neutral position if required.
Unless it is a massage table, most beds are not made to accommodate front sleepers, as it is difficult for to lay flat without turning your head to one side just to breathe. Sleeping on your stomach makes it difficult for the spine to align naturally, and forces your neck into rotation- for the whole duration of your sleep! Imagine if you had to stand for 7 hours with your head turning to side- that’s what’s happening when you sleep!
If you persist to sleep on your stomach, consider resting your forehead on a firm pillow which will allow you to face down, in order to alleviate the need to rotate your head to the side.
Knowing how to adjust your sleeping posture is paramount to giving your body good rest, however, it only accounts for soft tissue strain which can dissipate as quickly as it develops. Neck pain which persists implies that there is a factor at play beyond your regular sleeping habits.
If you experience any lasting pain, it is always best to seek help from a professional such as a physiotherapist who can help you identify and manage your pain.