Waking up in the morning should leave you feeling rested and pain-free, but nearly 70% of people are expected to wake up at least once in their life with neck pain and stiffness that can put them in a bad mood from the moment their feet hit the floor. Thankfully, there's most likely a simple and easy-to-fix cause behind your morning discomfort. Determine which of these five causes is behind your pain through the process of elimination.
Your pillow is designed to hold your head and neck at a neutral and straight position. However, many people create an alignment issue by going too long without replacing their pillow. A flat and compressed pillow can't give you the right support, especially when you're sleeping on your side. Using too many pillows, or grabbing a firm foam pillow that is too tall, causes the same kind of issue. When your neck is held at even a slight angle for hours on end, you develop fatigue in the muscles that results in pain and stiffness. Avoid polyfill that flattens quickly and foams that are too firm. Very soft memory foam pillows help you find the perfect neutral alignment, and feather pillows also work well as long as they're replaced regularly as they flatten.
Of course, it's not just your pillow causing your neck to slump into an unnatural angle at night. When you sleep on your stomach, the twisting of the neck to turn the head sideways puts a lot of strain on the muscles. Even sleeping on your side is a bad idea unless you've perfected your pillow support. Changing sleep positions means you should also change pillows. Side sleepers need pillows with higher support under the neck and a lower area for head. Back sleepers need similar support, but the height of both the neck and head sections should be much lower since very little lift is needed in that position.
You may think your neck pain is only developing overnight because you feel fine when you head to bed. However, your daily activities that strain your neck muscles can take long enough to trigger pain and stiffness that it doesn't appear until the next morning. Common activities that create fatigue and tension in neck muscles include
- Sitting with poor posture while staring at a computer screen or TV
- Holding your neck out of neutral forward-facing position for more than a few minutes at a time, such as looking down to work on something in your lap
- Using office equipment that don't follow ergonomic principles
- Talking on a phone without a headset for even relatively short periods throughout the day.
Of course, some of these activities can't be avoided when they're part of your job or family responsibilities. Reducing neck tension with self-massage or anti-inflammatory medication before you go to sleep can prevent the pain and stiffness from setting in over the eight hour period.
Sometimes a sore neck isn't directly related to that body part at all. When you spend your nights clenching your jaws and grinding your teeth, you're experiencing a condition known as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. The TM joint is part of your jaw that has tendons and muscles connecting it to the neck. With all that force and tension translating from your mouth into your neck, it's not surprising you wake up in pain. Getting a custom mouth guard to wear at night is a simple fix that can also prevent long-term damage to your teeth and jaws.
Finally, there's some evidence that poor sleep or insomnia alone can lead to pain, including in the neck. The patients in one study who had trouble sleeping or falling asleep were much more likely to report muscle pain developing within a year of the onset of the problem than their counterparts who slept relatively well. Getting treatment for a sleep disorder could be all you need to wake up without pain again, not to mention with more energy.
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