I’ve had neck issues off and on for about 10 years, dating back to an injury I suffered one night in University. I woke up the next morning and could barely move my head. Over the next few days it got significantly better, but I’ve had some degree of neck stiffness and episodic pain ever since.
On occasion, I’ve done something in sports that has led to a few days of sharp pain and quite limited range of motion. Sometimes I wake up with a stiff neck, which usually loosens up throughout the day. It’s never stopped me from participating in sports or going about daily activities, but it’s there in the background throughout the week.
As a result, I’ve become much more conscious of my sleeping position over the years. I have patients tell me all the time that they think their neck pain is due to their sleeping position. But I’m not so sure. Every night, you leave certain joints in awkward positions all night – your wrists, ankles, shoulders – and most of the time they don’t end up stiff and painful in the morning. If you have the range of motion and the nerves are functioning optimally, then you should be able to sleep however you want!
The problem is that due to limited range of motion, poor postures, and decreased activation of the deep stabilizers of your neck, the nerves become vulnerable to irritation with prolonged positions during sleep. These nerves cause disrupted muscle and blood flow activity, increased pain signals to the brain, and altered joint mechanics. So, my sleep position is only activating a problem that has been brewing for a decade!
The best sleeping position is one that is comfortable, but that attempts to keep your head/neck in a neutral position. This means a small pillow if you sleep on your back, and a larger one for side-sleepers. But if you are noticing that your sleep position is regularly causing pain or stiffness in the morning, there is something underlying that is being woken up while you sleep.
Many of these underlying dysfunctions can be addressed if treated properly in a timely manner. If left untreated, they often snowball into more significant pain and limited function.