Is Sleep Causing Your Neck and Back Pain?

Americans spend billions of dollars every year looking for relief from neck and back pain. Money is spent on doctor's visits, medications, X-rays, MRI scans and surgery. While a good percentage of these dollars are used to relieve neck and back pain resulting from accidents, injury and stress-induced pain, a significant amount is spent on neck and back pain resulting from poor sleep positioning.

If you are one of the many people whose neck and back pain is worse in the morning, then this is your cue that how you sleep may be causing your symptoms.

Sleeping on Your Back

Health experts say that sleeping on your back with no pillow is the best way to sleep since it supports the natural curve of your spine.

If you do use a pillow, it is recommended that you use one that keeps your neck straight. In other words, do not use a pillow that is too high and forces your head forward. Sleeping with a pillow that is too thick (or sleeping with too many pillows) will strain your neck and upper back and can also inhibit your breathing--adding stress that ultimately can cause more neck and back pain.

There are special neck support pillows called cervical pillows that have been shown to relieve neck stress in some people.

If you are sleeping with a pillow that is quite thick, you can do the following exercise when you get up in the morning to release your neck.

Exercise 1: Take your right hand and reach it over top to the left side of your head. Gently draw your right ear toward your right shoulder with the guidance of your right hand, feeling the stretch in the left side of the neck. Breathe deeply for five breaths. Repeat exercise on the other side. This exercise stretches and balances the neck muscles, freeing the vertebra in your neck to find their natural alignment. This can bring relief to both the neck and back.

Sleeping on Your Stomach

Sleeping on your stomach is considered the worst way to sleep by medical experts since it causes individuals to flatten the natural curve of their spine, twist their neck, and press their body weight on the lungs, making breathing less efficient. This position has been reported to contribute to headaches, backaches, neck pain and stiffness.

If you are sleeping on your stomach, it is recommended to start migrating to your side, and eventually to your back. In the meanwhile, you can do the following exercise to help reduce neck and back pain.

Exercise 2: Interlace your hands behind your head with your elbows facing out wide and stretch over to your right side, feeling the stretch along your left rib cage and waist. Take five deep breaths in this position. Repeat stretch on other side. This exercise opens up the torso and stretches the muscles that support the natural curve of the spine, relieving back pain in particular.

Sleeping on Your Side

While fetal position is quite common, there are problems with this position. When people sleep on their side, they generally put their arm(s) or hand(s) under their head (which weighs about 10 pounds)--crunching their shoulder, constricting the shoulder and neck muscles and pinching the nerves that run from the shoulder down to the hands. Ever wake up with numb hands? Now you know why.

If you sleep on your side, it is recommended that you use a pillow that positions your nose with the center of your body when you lie on your side. This will help your neck stretch evenly on both sides. Furthermore, it is recommended that you put a pillow between your knees so that you don't torque your pelvis.

If you are a side sleeper, try the following exercise to relieve neck, shoulder and back pain.

Exercise 3: Inhale your right arm up shoulder height and take it across your body with the support of your left hand, feeling the stretch in the back of the right shoulder. Take five deep breaths. Repeat on the other side. This exercise will open up the muscles in the back of the shoulder and relieve upper back and neck tension and pain.

Note: As an overall rule, sleeping on a mattress that is too soft can cause neck and back stiffness and pain. Switching to a firm mattress can make a huge difference for your body and in effect, your life. If you suspect that your neck and back pain are a result of the quality of your mattress and/or how you sleep, consider making the recommended changes and incorporate the suggested exercises into your daily routine.


Springen, K. The Price of Pain. Newsweek. Feb. 12, 2008. Accessed January 4, 2010.

Sleep on It. Body and Soul. June 2009. Accessed January 2, 2010.

Trespicio, T. Best Sleep Positions to Rid Aches, Pains. June 16, 2009. Accessed January 4, 2010.