How To Sleep If You Have Neck Or Shoulder Pain

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Neck and shoulder 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.]

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Reconsider how you sleep

Did you know that there are some sleep positions that are considered healthier than others? The National Sleep Foundations recommends 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.

Your neck, as well as the rest of your body, will suffer the most if you’re a stomach sleeper. It is very hard for stomach sleepers to attain neutral alignment. Stomach sleepers put pressure on their muscles and joints, possibly leading to numbness, tingling, aches, and irritated nerves, say experts at the National Sleep Foundation.

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain and you are a side sleeper, 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.

Find the right pillow (and mattress) for your sleep position

You can support your neutral alignment by using the proper pillow for your sleep position.

“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.”

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.
  • 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).

Likewise, your mattress will also play an important role in your neck and shoulder comfort. Side sleepers put a lot of pressure on their shoulders when they sleep and need a mattress that features pressure-relieving layers, usually a softer bed with a plusher top. On the other hand, in order to support a neutral spine, stomach sleepers should look for a firmer mattress.

 

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Practice some pre-bed neck and shoulder stretching

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,” wrote Dr. 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.”

Put down the phone at night

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Experts say that using your phone in bed could be causing undue stress to your neck. Or worse, it could be making an already existing neck pain problem worse.

“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.”

Overall

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. Sleep posture, position and using the right pillow are all factors that should be considered when trying to resolve your pain issues.

Good sleep hygiene – things that promote good quality sleep like exercising, avoiding caffeine close to bedtime and setting a regular bedtime routine – can help you go to sleep and stay asleep. These will help reduce the amount of restlessness and movement during the night that could further contribute to your already existing 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.