How does sleep affect the muscles?
Everyday neck pain can come about suddenly, such as after an accident, or over time because of problems in the joints of the spine, but what if you notice the pain is only there after waking? Surely the last cause of any pain you could think of would be after sleeping?
However, muscles, tendons and ligaments often become stiff after periods of inactivity, much more so if they’ve been fixed in an awkward position for long periods. This means that your sleeping position, your choice of pillow or mattress or even being pregnant can all contribute to neck pain after sleeping.
How your sleeping position affects your neck
If you find a night in bed seems to trigger your neck pain, it could be down to your sleeping position.
Never sleep on your front, as the neck angle needed to turn the head to breathe is too extreme. Sleeping on your back or your side is far better but the most comfortable position of these will be dictated by the nature of your neck issue, your own anatomy and your personal experience.
Bearing in mind you’re going to fidget and turn during the night, maintaining the correct position for your neck isn’t entirely under your control but you can at least start the night well.
Choosing the right pillow
Advice on pillows is mixed. Some say use a feather pillow or any soft filler, others promote foam memory pillows and there are also pillows shaped for those who sleep on their back, on their side… What they all forget (and it’s your money they’re being forgetful with – I’ve seen a pillow selling for £120) is that we fidget and turn.
Pillows that claim to offer support to the back or neck are called orthopaedic pillows, should you wish to do your own research. You may see orthopaedic pillows for the neck under ‘cervical’ pillows, as the neck is the ‘cervical’ part of the spine. These pillows tend to have a deeper indent where your head would rest and a bulge under the neck to support the spine.
What’s pretty much said by all the experts, though, is just to use one, firm pillow. Overly soft pillows allow the head to sag and overly hard fillings, or multiple pillows, bend it too far the other way. So take a look at an orthopaedic pillow but make sure you’ve tried adjusting the current number of ‘normal’ pillows you use right now before spending lots of money.
Your mattress support
There isn’t a lot of quality research investigating mattress choice and back pain relief, never mind relief from neck pain, so we have to rely on common sense.
It’s likely that a super soft mattress will allow the whole body to sink into the bed, meaning the spine is anything but straight when lying on your side. This would create an unnatural neck angle as the shoulders would sink too far below the head. The same soft mattress would also allow your bottom and shoulders to sink when sleeping on your back, meaning an unhealthy and unsupported body.
If you imagine turning this sleeping position to a vertical plane, you’d certainly be uncomfortable walking with that posture, so try to remember how many years ago you bought your mattress and when you last turned it – then perhaps consider buying something a little more supportive.
Pregnancy and neck pain after sleeping
If you’re pregnant and suffer the usual aches and pains, you must take practical steps because taking pain killers isn’t an option.
Do remember that a lot of neck pain in the first trimester is caused by hormonal changes and so as these settle down, so should the neck pain. However, as your baby grows bigger, the last trimester can be quite uncomfortable.
As the lower back becomes strained and the bump ever more intrusive, pregnant women can find themselves trying all manner of strange sleeping positions to ease the discomfort. Since the back and neck are so closely connected, some of the more radical positions, such as propping your upper body up with 4 or 5 pillows might relieve the lower back but be causing a whole new joy – a sore neck.
Lower back pain and sciatica are often greatly relieved when the lower spine is ‘opened up’. The simplest way to do this is to pop a couple of pillows under the knees if you prefer sleeping on your back, or between the knees if sleeping on your side. If you are then able to use the perfect neck pillow, you should find that any neck pain also resolves itself.
5 simple morning exercises to ease a stiff neck
We can only give general advice here and if you know you have a chronic neck complaint such as cervical spondylosis, numbness or tingling in the arms or hands, bladder or bowel control issues then be sure to see a physiotherapist (via your doctor or privately), chiropractor or osteopath for a detailed and individual examination and recommendations.
However, if you’re content that you’ve nothing more than a stiff neck, we like the idea that those weakened tissues could be rehabilitated with some good old fashioned exercise, so here are some that we promise will take just 10 minutes to perform that should help strengthen the deconditioned and strained muscles of the neck.
Exercise 1: Standing, drop your head to one side while continuing to look ahead. Hold for 10 seconds and swap sides. Repeat twice more each side. To increase the stretch, drop the opposite shoulder.
Exercise 2: Standing again, lower your chin to your chest, hold for 10 and then look up to the ceiling and hold for 10. Repeat twice more. A more advanced version of this would be to lie on your front on the end of the bed with just your head over the end. Slowly nod it up and down to strengthen those same neck muscles further.
Exercise 3: Next, standing straight again, look over your right shoulder and hold firm for 10 seconds, then your left shoulder for 10. Repeat this 3 times. You’ll notice more of a pulling or pinching sensation on one side more than the other, which shows you’ve targeted the muscle knot responsible.
Exercise 4: Lying on your back and staring straight up, put your tongue into the roof of your mouth and tuck your chin towards your chest for a count of 10. Then lift your head from the floor, trying to imagine the bend is at the base of the skull, between the ears. Hold this for 10 and relax. Try to do this slowly for two minutes. This lengthens the muscles in the back of the neck.
Exercise 5: Finally, while sitting straight, jut your head forward and hold for 10, then all the way back and hold for 10. Repeat another 5 times and that’s your 10 minutes done.
Natural and herbal remedies to help
The best natural treatments I can recommend are heat and arnica gel.
If you wake up with a sore neck, take a bath, if you have time, letting the water support the weight of your head, or a hot shower if more hurried, focusing the water on the neck. Alternatively, apply a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel to the neck.
Some articles suggest applying cold treatments but this could cause the muscles to become stiffer as they contract and connective tissues to become inflexible. Cold therapies are best kept for inflammatory situations, such as the swelling after injury. Read more about the differences between heat and cold therapy.
Once the muscles are nice and warm, apply some Atrogel arnica gel. It’s licensed for muscular aches, pains and stiffness, and can be used by pregnant and breastfeeding women, with the permission of your midwife or doctor.
If you don't have time for heat therapy in the morning, simply rub some Atrogel on when you wake up and it will quickly start to soothe your muscles.
A stiff neck after sleeping can be painful, uncomfortable and impact the rest of your day but with these simple changes to your sleep environment, position and morning exercises – now you don’t have to grin and bear it.
However if your pain is persistent or worsens, please consult your doctor.