How To Sleep If You Have Neck Or Shoulder Pain

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Sacrificing sleep to deal with shoulder or neck pain can be frustrating, especially when you can’t figure out the cause of your pain. Shoulder and neck pain can happen for many reasons.

Some pain-related issues, like joint pain from aging or injuries, don’t always have the easiest fixes. But for others, small changes in how you sleep could lead to big results.

We’ve put together expert advice on how to sleep if you are dealing with neck or shoulder pain, including some quick tips on changes you can make in your own bedroom.

[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a sleep doctor or other medical expert if you have questions related to your own health.]

Martin Novak/Shutterstock

What’s Causing Your Shoulder or Neck Pain?

When you think about how much work your neck does in even the simplest of actions, it’s no surprise that many people suffer from pain in the neck muscles and shoulder muscles.

“When you tilt your head forward to text or browse the internet on your phone, it places strain on the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in your neck,” say the team at Spine-Health.com

“This may not seem like a big deal, but consider the following: when your head is in a neutral position, roughly 10 to 12 pounds of force is placed on your neck muscles. But if you hold your head at a 60-degree angle while using your phone, about 60 pounds of force is exerted on your neck.”

Neck or shoulder pain can be caused by a wide range of issues, whether that’s an injury, overuse, sleeping incorrectly, or even something as simple as sleeping with a pillow that causes neck pain.

Common Neck & Shoulder Injuries Include:

InjurySymptoms
Muscle strains & soft tissue injuries from sports or overuseStiffness, headache, muscle spasms
Worn joints from OsteoarthritisBone spurs that can affect joint motion
Pinched nerve in the neck from small bone spurs in the vertebrae of the neckTingling and weakness in the hand

Weakness in shoulder muscles

Pain on the left side or right side of the neck from strains or bad sleeping positionsIn the right shoulder specifically, could be gallstones or inflamed gallbladder
Muscle tension in the neckTension headaches that may feel similar to a migraine

Fortunately neck pain from common pains & strains, poor posture, overuse and incorrect sleeping positions can be treated at home, with many options to improve your health.

5 Tips for Avoiding Neck or Shoulder Pain While Sleeping

Understanding how you sleep is important in alleviating shoulder or neck pain. Combating neck and shoulder pain while you sleep is far-reaching—your sleeping position, the right pillow and mattress, practicing gentle stretches before bed, and practicing healthy posture habits during the day can all work to improve your sleeping experience.

1. Change Your Sleeping Position

Did you know that there are some sleeping positions that are considered healthier than others? Health experts recommend back sleeping above all others.

This is because sleeping on your back helps your head, neck, and spine stay in neutral alignment – which is absolutely key to reducing your chances of neck (or back) pain at night.

So what does that mean for the other sleeping positions? If you’re a side sleeper experiencing shoulder or pain, you may need to train yourself out of that position.

Side sleepers put a lot of pressure on their shoulders and other pressure points like the hips and knees while they sleep. All hope is not for side sleepers though!

neutral spinal alignment - best pillows for side sleepers

If you sleep on a contouring and supportive mattress that cradles the shoulders (paired with the right pillow), you may be able to get away with staying in this position pain-free.

RELATED: Best Mattress For Side Sleepers

However, if you aren’t ready to purchase a new mattress or pillow and are experiencing shoulder pain, avoid sleeping on the affected side. If possible, sleep on the opposite side and place a pillow between your knees for added comfort and to help maintain a good sleep posture.

What about stomach sleepers? Stomach sleepers aren’t in danger of putting direct pressure on the shoulders; however, stomach sleeping can be dangerous and harmful to the neck (especially if you sleep with a thick pillow).

If you’re having trouble sleeping with neck or shoulder pain, switching your sleeping position over to your back may be enough to alleviate your pain. Of course, it’s not always that simple. Another important factor is sleeping on bedding products that support proper alignment.

2. Choose a Supportive Mattress

The kind of support you need from a mattress has a lot to do with your body type and your sleeping position.

Body TypeSleeping PositionRecommended Mattress Type
Lightweight<SideSofter
LightweightStomach or BackMedium
AverageSideMedium to medium-firm
AverageStomach or Back>Medium-firm
HeavySideMedium-firm to firm
HeavyStomach or BackFirm

Lightweight sleepers are typically best supported on softer mattresses, while heavier people (200+ pounds) need a firmer mattress to offer the best support.

Side sleepers need softer mattresses that contour to their body to alleviate pressure in the hips and shoulders, while back and stomach sleepers need a more firm mattress to keep their spine aligned. Make sure to read our list of the best mattresses for lower back pain and sciatica, as these issues can also occur on an unsupportive mattress.

Picking the right pillow might just be the solution to your persistent pain.

“A good sleeping posture is key to sleeping soundly, night after night, and to waking without pain and stiffness,” says Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and noted sleep expert in a blog post on his website. “Your pillow helps to support a healthy sleep posture.”
The most important thing is keeping your neck and spine aligned, based on your sleeping position. Read our Best Pillows for Neck Pain guide for an extensive list of choices.

solar22/Shutterstock

Your height, weight, and personal preferences will help determine what pillow you ultimately choose, but here are some general guidelines based on your sleeping position:

  • Side sleepers typically need the thickest/firmest pillow because they need to support their head and neck so that it lays in the middle of the shoulders. A rounded pillow may be a good choice for side sleepers to have high support around the neck and lower under the head.
  • Back sleepers need flatter pillows that support the natural curvature of the neck and spine and promote a neutral alignment.
  • Lastly, stomach sleepers would benefit from pillows no more than 3″ in height, or they risk putting additional strain on their neck (which can result in neck pain).

When looking at the materials of pillows, feather pillows and memory foam pillows can provide the support and comfort to help reduce your neck pain.

Overall, try to avoid a very stiff or high pillow. This can force the neck to remain flexed while your sleep and lead to additional neck pain.

4. Practice Gentle Stretches

You can also do a few simple exercises to relieve neck pain and work toward a better night’s sleep.

Depending on your particular medical situations, some experts will recommend gentle stretching of either your neck or your shoulder before heading to bed.

Stretching your neck loosens your tight muscles and may help relieve your pain, according to experts from Spine-Health.com. There are different types of stretches depending on where the pain is located in your neck. It may be best to consult with a medical professional before trying any specific stretching to make sure you’re loosening the right muscles and not potentially making things worse.

The professionals at Restore Orthopedics and Spine Center in Orange, California, say that shoulder pain keeping people awake at night is a common complaint. One suggestion they frequently make is to stretch the shoulder.
“In my experience, once the flexibility or range of motion (ROM) of [the] shoulder is optimized the pain improves,” wroteDr. Steve Mora, an Orange County Shoulder Specialist at Restore, in a blog post on the company’s website. “In cases where the pain is caused by inflammation, such as tendinitis or bursitis, the night time pain may permanently resolve.”

5. Practice Healthy Posture Habits

If you find yourself looking down at a phone or computer for most of the work day, make these simple adjustments to stop neck or shoulder pain before you go to sleep.

  • Use good posture with shoulders in line with your hips and ears sitting directly above your shoulders.
  • Take breaks throughout the day to stretch by rolling your shoulders backwards 10 times, squeezing shoulder blades together 10 times and bringing your eye to your shoulder 10 times.
  • Keep your computer monitor at eye level by adjusting your desk and chair as needed.
  • Avoid using your phone in bed. Experts say this causes undue stress to your neck.

Summary

There are many reasons for neck or shoulder pain – some are out of our control and others can be fixed with the change of a pillow.

Improve your sleep by adjusting your sleep position, picking out the right mattress and pillow pillow, and adding in simple changes to your everyday routine. If you have other pain interfering with your sleep, check out some of our other guide like the best mattresses for back pain.

[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a sleep doctor or other medical expert if you have questions related to your own health.]

Featured image: Dusan Petkovic

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Katie Golde

Katie manages the day to day operations of the Mattress Clarity news site and reviews sleep products in addition to writing and editing sleep news.She hails from Austin, where she lives with her growing family. She is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and has a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and has a background in health and science content. Her work can be found in print and online publications like Discover Magazine, USA Today and The Huffington Post.
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