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7th June, 20204 min read

Why does my neck hurt when I wake up -- and what can I do about it?

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Author:Tomas Duffin
Last reviewed: 08/06/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Waking up with pain in your neck is an unpleasant way to start the day, but neck pain related to sleep is fairly common.

One study found that around 1 in 20 people with long term neck, shoulder or lower back pain might have it due to sleeping problems.

Most of the time the pain is a result of either the pillow you’re using or the position you’re sleeping in.

But if you’re worried about your pain or it persists for several weeks, you should see a doctor.

What can cause neck pain while you sleep?

If you sleep in an odd position, your neck muscles can become locked, which can lead to pain.

Certain sleeping positions also increase your risk of neck pain, such as sleeping on your tummy, as this makes you more likely to twist your neck to breathe.

Pillows that don’t provide enough support for your neck, or elevate it too much, can also lead to neck pain.

How to prevent neck pain while you sleep

The following tips may improve the quality of your sleep and help to prevent neck pain:

  • choosing the right pillow -- there is not one pillow that suits everyone. Generally, the best pillow for neck pain is low and firm. This is because your head should be at the same height as the rest of your body and not elevated.
  • sleeping on your back -- this keeps your spine in a neutral position, which helps to prevent neck pain.
  • sleeping on your side -- if you prefer to sleep on your side, keep your spine straight by using a slightly larger pillow
  • building up your neck muscles -- flexibility exercises including neck rotation and neck stretching at least twice a week can help to strengthen your muscles
  • yoga and pilates -- studies have shown that yoga improves neck muscle function and pilates increases neck muscle thickness
  • creating a good sleep routine -- sleep reduces stress and improves your overall feeling of wellbeing. Persistent neck pain has been linked to sleep problems, which can make the pain worse

How can I manage my neck pain?

If you have tried the above techniques but still wake up with symptoms there are other things you can do to help relieve the pain:

  • a heat pack or hot water bottle on your neck can also help to reduce the pain and any muscle spasms
  • exercise is an effective way to treat neck pain
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may be effective at relieving neck pain, and can be bought from a pharmacy. They come in either tablet form or as a gel for rubbing on your neck

If you find NSAIDs help with the pain, try to gradually reduce the dose after 1 or 2 weeks. Please check with your doctor if you can take these medications.

If the pain persists and is affecting your everyday life you should see a doctor.

They may order tests to find out the cause of your neck pain, suggest physiotherapy to improve your strength and flexibility, or a muscle relaxant if non-prescription medicine hasn’t been effective.

When to see a doctor for neck pain

If you have any of the following symptoms you should see a doctor as soon as possible:

  • pins and needles in your arm
  • you’re recovering from an injury, such as whiplash
  • you have a temperature or unexplained weight loss
  • the neck bones rather than neck muscles are tender
  • you develop weakness in your legs or have difficulty peeing or pooing
  • pain or stiffness doesn't go away after a few weeks
  • painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen haven't worked
  • you're worried about the pain
  • you have other symptoms, like pins and needles or a cold arm – this could be something more serious

Most neck pain can resolve on its own, but don’t assume it’s due to a bad sleeping position if it happens regularly or is accompanied by other symptoms.

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