young man sleeping in bed 2048 x 1367

Troubled by a neck pain? You’re not alone. A 2017 population-based study determined the prevalence of neck pain in a population of adults aged 20 and above was 20.3% or 1 in 5 people. Although a variety of risk factors for neck pain have been identified, including your posture/positioning while at work, one risk factor that isn’t often talked about how you position yourself when you sleep. A study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science on June 29, 2017, was specifically aimed at identifying the effects of sleep posture on neck muscle activity.

The authors found that the activity of the affected muscles was significantly different in each of the three main sleeping positions: supine with both hands at the side (BHS), supine with both hands on the chest (BHC), and supine with the dominant hand on the forehead (DHF). The authors concluded that

“sleep posture is important and prevents neck and shoulder musculoskeletal pain.”


8 Ways to Relieve Neck Pain from Sleeping in the Wrong Position

Based on these findings and other research detailed below, here are 7 ways to relieve neck pain from sleeping in the wrong position:

1. Don’t sleep in the supine DHF position

If you’re one of those people who put one hand on their forehead while sleeping, you’re may be contributing to your neck pain. When you sleep in this posture, the upper trapezius and scalene muscles are activated on one side. The imbalanced activation of the muscles causes a rotation in the neck, and that leaves you with a misalignment of the cervical spine.

      2.  Avoid the supine BHC position

The supine BHC position is more symmetrical than the DHF since you have positioned both hands on the chest while lying on your back. The difference in the activity between the scalene and upper trapezius muscles is lower. Still, this position of the arms causes some level of tightness of the upper trapezius, which can cause numbness and neck pain.

3.  Get used to the BHS position

The researcher found that the difference in muscle activity was the smallest in the supine BHS (both hands at the side) position. When you go to a relaxation course, they tell you to lay in the so-called Savasana or corpse pose. You lay on your back, with the legs slightly separated and both arms relaxed by the side. The head is in a straight continuation of the neck, without falling to either side. It’s a balanced position, and it turns out it’s the best posture for sleep.

4. Your pillow makes a difference

The pillow you use affects the shape of the cervical spine. With that, the pillow has a direct effect on muscle fatigue and pain in that area. A study from 1997 made a comparison of three types of pillow: the usual pillow, a roll pillow, and a water-based pillow. They found that the water-based pillow not only improved the quality of sleep but also led to pain relief and reduced intensity of neck pain in the morning. Although this study is not fully reliable because it doesn’t take body position into account, most people would probably agree that sleeping on the right pillow can make a big difference.

5. Use a pillow with an adaptable shape

The most important thing to look for in a pillow is flexibility. When you put your head on it, it should change its shape to perfectly support your neck. When you change your position, the shape of the pillow should change also. If you don’t like a water-based pillow, you can opt for a more traditional choice. Feather pillows are good in terms of conforming to the neck’s shape, however, they tend to collapse with continued use so it’s important to change them once per year. A high-quality memory foam pillow is another good choice. It will last longer and continue to conform to the shape of your head and neck.

6. Do something About that insomnia

If you suffer from both insomnia and neck pain, you may be interested to learn that there is apparently a reciprocal relationship between these two factors:

Neck pain can interfere with sleep and insomnia heightens your perception of pain the next morning.

A 2015 study published in the journal Pain found that sleep problems “significantly increase the risk for reduced pain tolerance.” So, if you suffer from insomnia, you should seriously consider taking action to address the problem. Some experts feel that the most reliable improvement in the quality of sleep comes from psychological and behavioral therapy.

Related article: Sleeping Pills Not Working? Here’s What You Need to Know

7. Try stretching in the morning

If you’re waking up with stiffness in your neck and the entire body, morning stretches can help. Gentle Hatha yoga, for example, will improve the mobility of all muscles and joints and will make you feel relaxed. A randomized-controlled trial identified the effects of home-based yoga practice for chronic neck pain. The participants who practiced yoga reported significantly less neck pain when compared to the participants who did another type of exercise. Yoga seemed to influence the functional status of the muscles in the neck area as it improved the physiological measures of neck pain.

8. Consider acupuncture

If you suffer from chronic neck pain that doesn’t go away no matter how much you try to improve your sleeping position or the pillow, perhaps it’s time to consider acupuncture which can be an effective treatment for cervical pain. A controlled trial showed that relevant acupuncture treatment combined with heat resulted in a reduction in neck pain.

The Bottom Line

There’s no doubt that neck pain causes a huge amount of discomfort. When you wake up with stiffness and pain, your entire day can be impacted by how you feel. But remember that you do have options to make the pain go away or at least reduce it to a significant degree. Hopefully, the eight methods suggested above will help.

If you have tried something that worked for you and is not on this list, please share it in the comment section below.


  1. My wife and I have been developing some growing pain in our necks and we’re wondering if this could be from something we’re not aware of. I really appreciated it when you talked about different pillows and how water-based ones end up providing relief after sleep because we had bought our bedroom set months ago and have never thought of replacing them. I’ll remember to keep your article in mind while looking for a place that can give my wife and me more advice on how to deal with neck pain. Thank you so much!

  2. I agree with you. Bad sleeping posture can cause neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, and others. A good sleeping posture is an essential thing for everybody. Thank you.


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