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Ouch! What Causes Those Pains in the Neck?

Your favorite sleep position might be causing you some serious discomfort. 

This morning I woke up and felt like my neck had been painfully twisted and locked in place with me looking up and a little to the left. Awkward—but a lot better than the pain that pulsed through my neck and shoulder when I tried to resume normal posture. Although the tightness went away by the time I was through a few cups of coffee, I started wondering—what sleeping sin did I commit that caused me to wake up that way? Was it my position (stomach down, head turned to the right)? Something about my bed or pillow? I decided to find out if there was anything I could do to roll out of bed pain-free. 

What Is It?
Whether it’s short lived, like mine, or chronic, plaguing us for more than a few weeks, most of us experience neck pain at some point in our lives, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

When we wake up with stiffness, it probably means that one or more of the tiny joints running up the back of the neck has become locked. When this happens, the small muscles surrounding them tighten, which unconscious reflexes control. The muscles follow the joints’ lead, contracting to protectively hold the joint in place because, well, that’s their job. This prolonged contraction, which can sometimes cause swelling in the joints, causes that expletive-inducing pain when we try to pick up our head out of bed. And it takes a few hours to get over it because the muscles take a little coaxing to loosen up. 

What Causes It?
Why does this happen on particular nights and to certain people more often than others? I asked my chiropractor, Brett Thomason, about the first-thing-in-the-morning pain: “There are a ton of things that can cause neck pain, depending on lifestyle, sleeping habits, and genetics, so it can be tricky to pinpoint,” he says. He broke down some of the most common culprits to help me shed some light on how to wake up expletive-free. 

Muscle strains
Bad posture during the day means that our necks hit the sack seriously strained. After a day hunched over the computer, neck muscles are bent out of shape, literally, and wake up sore as we would from a tough workout. Other strainers include reading in bed in an awkward position, spending a lot of time holding the phone between our ear and shoulder, and grinding our teeth. Breaking these habits is the only way to free your neck from the soreness. 

Your favorite position
Whether we’re over-tired, drank too much at happy hour, or are guzzling cold medicine to get through a sickness, some nights we move around a lot less than usual as we sleep, holding neck muscles in unnatural positions that we end up regretting the next day (along with all those margaritas). “The worst is when someone is on their stomach with their head turned ninety degrees,” says Thomason. “Joints on one side jam while muscles and soft tissues on the other are over-stretched.” There goes my go-to position. Sleeping on the back is the best choice for neck relaxation, since it lets the pillow fully support the head, neck, and lower back.  

The pillow
Both too much and not enough pillow are quiet causes of neck tenderness. Too much? The head is angled awkwardly upward. Too little? The head ends up lower than the neck, straining the joints and muscles. Sleeping without a pillow isn’t any good either, since the neck’s natural curve has no support at all. A pillow should hold our necks in a natural curve, lifting the head about three inches higher than the body. This provides the perfect amount of firm head and neck cradling, according to Back Pain Book, by Mike Hage. Quality counts, too. A good pillow will maintain its shape when we rest our heads on it. 

Sleeping with the window open
I live in an apartment with no air conditioning. To counteract sweltering summer days, I open all my windows at night in hopes of trapping and keeping some cool air. The problem is, when the temperature drops to its lowest, around 3 a.m., our muscles stiffen and can even cramp, leading to that tightening that I woke up with. This becomes a problem when muscles tighten while we’re twisted into an odd position. We otherwise might wake up without ever realizing what strange positions we’d twisted ourselves into, but if the cold finds us at the right time, our muscles will be reminding us for the first few hours of the day. 

Putting It Back in Place
Though it’s really just a matter of waiting for those little neck muscles to loosen up, we can do a few things to ease the a.m. pain when it’s too late for prevention. Pain relievers like ibuprofen can alleviate the pain and reduce any swelling, as does icing and/or heating for about twenty minutes. Anything lasting more than a few days and you should definitely see a doctor. Massages are also always great for loosening up tension, so a bribe to your bedmate could work here, too. If he or she refuses, some gentle neck and back stretching can get blood flowing to the area and prevent future stiffness, too. 

Me? I’ll be working on that massage.

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