You're lying in bed after a long day and you're ready to get some rest. But when you close your eyes to snooze, tightness in your neck doesn't make it so easy. Sound familiar? If aches are keeping you up at night, here's some guidance on how to fall asleep with neck pain.
Research shows that about one in three people experience neck pain every year, often due to poor posture or muscle overuse. But, with extra screen time during the pandemic, the constant staring down at screens has brought about "tech neck," aka pain and stiffness at the top of your spine, says chiropractic physician Dr. Natalie Richards. That's because your neck muscles are putting in overtime to hold your head up.
Chiropractic physician Dr. Austin Davis says to think of your head as a bowling ball: "Your neck muscles are trying to hold it up when you stick it out in front of your body, which can cause fatigue and pain," he tells Bustle. In other words, if your neck isn't properly aligned during the day, you'll wind up with soreness... which can make it hard to get comfortable for a good night's rest.
If your neck aches are getting in the way of a solid snooze, check out these expert-backed tips for how to tackle pain so you can drift off to dreamland pain-free.
1. Set Yourself Up For Success
The first strategy in avoiding neck pain at night is to prevent it during the day, says Richards. You can do this by setting up an ergonomic WFH station. "Bring your phone, computer, book, or whatever you're looking at up to eye level to help ensure your neck isn't constantly bent down," she tells Bustle.
If you prefer working from your kitchen counter, coffee table, or bed, Davis warns this is a recipe for neck aches. These positions make the bowling ball that is your head angle forward and down to look at your screen, which puts undue strain on your muscles and spine, he says. The steeper that angle, the more pounds of pressure your neck has to work to hold up, he adds.
2. Take Posture Breaks
Do your neck a favor by taking posture breaks throughout the day, says Richards, which can help reduce pain come bedtime. Every half an hour to an hour, she recommends to stand up, stretch, and open up your shoulders. "The shoulders and the neck work closely together, so whatever one is doing, the other is going to do the same," she says. "When your shoulders round forward, your head follows." Taking a moment to counteract that rounding can prime your body for better posture, and better posture results in less body aches.
Davis suggests the 35/35 trick. Set a timer for every 35 minutes throughout your workday, and get up to move — shadowbox, run in place, or whatever activity feels right — for 35 seconds when that timer goes off. "When you're sitting or standing stagnantly, the body isn't circulating as much oxygenated blood," he tells Bustle. "These bursts of activity can help you end up with less pain and more focus from getting that blood flow to the brain and body."
If you prefer more relaxing breaks, Richards suggests standing with your back against the wall or lying with your back flat on hard ground. Both positions allow your spine to fall back into natural alignment, which can mitigate neck pain from wonky posture. For bonus points, stretch out your neck muscles by slowly turning your head from side to side and dipping your ears towards either shoulder, adds Davis.
3. Foam Roll
Richards recommends hitting the foam roller to help relax the muscles on your back side that are tense from holding your head up all day. Roll out the middle part of your back before bed to help make lying down to snooze a bit more comfortable, she says.
If you don't have a foam roller, Davis says you can roll up a towel to about the thickness of your forearm and place it at the base of your neck. This will reinforce the natural curvature of your spine. You can hold onto either end of the towel and work it up your neck to massage your muscles, he says, though simply laying flat on the towel will also the trick — try it while you're watching TV or napping to kill two birds with one stone.
4. Avoid Sleeping On Your Stomach
Beware, stomach sleepers: Snoozing on your belly is the worst position for neck pain, says Richards. Keeping your neck turned to the side for six plus hours a night can shift your spine, she cautions, and it may even be the root cause of your neck pain. If this sounds like you, she recommends retraining yourself to sleep on your side or back to protect against everyday neck pain and chronic spinal misalignment.
This also may be a sign you should take a trip to the chiropractor, says Davis. Oftentimes, simple fixes like reworking your WFH setup can do wonders to relieve neck pain. But if you have a lifetime of stomach sleeping behind you or have other physical limitations that make your neck incapable of natural curvature, making your home office more ergonomic isn't going to cure it — a chiropractor can help address underlying anatomic issues to help you avoid future pain, he says.
5. Pick The Right Pillow
If you sleep on your side, opt for a slightly taller pillow, says Richards. It'll help keep your neck in alignment with the rest of your spine. If you sleep on your back, go with a thin and squishy pillow. "If the pillow is too thick or hard, it's actually pushing your head up into the same position you have when you're looking at your computer," she says.
Or ditch your pillow entirely, she adds. "Pillows are more of a modern luxury versus a necessity for our bodies, and sleeping without one can reset your body." If you're not ready to go cold turkey on pillows just yet, try Davis's rolled-up towel trick to give your neck some light support while you snooze.
Dr. Austin Davis, DC, a chiropractic physician at Life Chiropractic in San Francisco
Dr. Natalie Richards, DC, a chiropractic physician and owner of Revive Chiropractic Wellness Center in Illinois
(2019). Neck pain: Overview. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK338120/