Waking up with neck pain is an unpleasant way to start the day. While there are many potential causes, one of the most common is your pillow. If your neck hurts every morning, your pillow may be to blame. Here’s how to tell if your pillow is causing your neck pain and what you can do about it.
Pay Attention to When the Pain Occurs
If your neck pain is at its worst first thing in the morning or while sleeping, your pillow is likely contributing. This type of pain that happens at night or when waking up is usually related to how you sleep. During sleep you remain in one position for hours, so an improper pillow can strain your neck and lead to pain.
Take Note of Your Sleeping Position
Your preferred sleeping position plays a role in how your pillow supports your neck. Back sleepers need a thinner pillow so their head doesn’t tilt too far forward. Side sleepers need a thicker pillow between their head and the mattress to keep their spine aligned. Stomach sleepers should use a very thin pillow or none at all. If your pillow isn’t right for your sleep position, it can easily misalign your neck and cause pain.
Consider Your Pillow’s Age
Your pillow may have been perfectly comfortable when it was new but is now worn out. Pillows lose their loft and shape over time, especially ones made from materials like feather, fiberfill or foam. A misshapen, flattened pillow cannot properly support your head and neck as you sleep. Replace damaged, lumpy pillows immediately. Even pillows in good shape should be replaced every 12-18 months.
Examine the Quality and Materials
A cheap pillow made from low density foam or feathers may not give your neck the support it needs. There are many different pillow types made from materials like memory foam, latex, microfiber, buckwheat and more. Select a quality pillow with a fill material suited to your sleep style. Materials like memory foam or latex tend to hold their shape better and relieve pressure on the neck.
Try a Contour or Orthopedic Pillow
If nothing seems to help your neck pain, try switching to a contoured or orthopedic pillow. These pillows have special shapes designed to cradle the head and neck. Water-based gel pillows also provide extra support and cushioning. Just make sure the height and shape fits your sleeping position; an orthopedic pillow that’s too tall or firm could make pain worse.
Pay Attention to Extra Neck Strain
On top of your pillow, other factors during the day could be contributing to your sore neck in the morning. Things like hunching over a computer, carrying heavy bags on one shoulder or sleeping in a chair can all add extra strain on your neck. Try improving your posture and lifting techniques to reduce daily strain on your neck muscles.
Talk to Your Doctor
While most morning neck pain is caused by mundane reasons like pillows, in some cases it could be a symptom of an underlying medical issue. See your doctor if the pain is severe and doesn’t get better with pillow changes, if it radiates down your arm or is accompanied by numbness or weakness. Disc herniation, whiplash, arthritis and other serious issues can also cause neck pain.
Adjust Your Pillow Arrangement
If your pillow alone seems to be the culprit, play around with combinations and arrangements that work better. Try using two slimmer pillows stacked together. Place a firm pillow under your neck and a softer type under your head. Adjust the height by removing or adding pillows. Side sleepers may benefit from a body pillow for extra support. Adding cushions around your pillow can improve alignment.
Improve Your Sleep Habits
Parts of your nighttime routine besides your pillow could also be contributing to morning neck stiffness. Developing better sleep habits allows your muscles to fully relax and recharge. Get on a regular sleep schedule and wind down before bed. Avoid screens late at night. Improve your mattress and use a light, breathable blanket. Consider a humidifier. Stay hydrated throughout the day. Proper sleep hygiene reduces tossing, turning and tension.
When Shopping for a Pillow
If your old pillow needs replacing, keep these tips in mind while shopping:
- Make sure the pillow is designed for your preferred sleeping position. Side and back sleepers need different heights and fills.
- Try out display pillows in the store. Lay on them in your sleeping position for at least 10 minutes.
- Choose materials designed for support like memory foam or microfiber. Avoid feathers or polyester fibers that flatten.
- Get a pillow with a removable, washable cover to keep it fresh.
- Think about fill material, firmness, loft, density and shape. This depends on your needs.
- Consider an orthopedic, waterbase or contoured pillow if you have chronic neck issues.
Be Patient With Changes
If you make any adjustments to your pillow or sleep set up, give your body time to adjust to the new position. It can take several nights before you notice a difference in your neck pain levels. Don’t give up right away and switch back to your old pillow. Stick with it for a couple weeks if possible.
When to See a Doctor
While pillow problems are the most likely cause of morning neck stiffness for most people, don’t ignore severe or worsening pain. See your doctor if any of the following apply:
- Pain or stiffness that does not improve after changing pillows
- Pain that radiates down the arm, into the hand or fingers
- Numbness or tingling in the arm, hand or fingers
- Muscle weakness in the arm or hand
- Severe pain that interferes with sleep or daily activities
- Headaches along with neck pain
- Pain after injury or trauma such as whiplash
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Fever along with neck pain or stiffness
Severe neck pain along with symptoms like these can indicate something more significant like a herniated disc, arthritis, bone spurs or nerve compression. See a doctor right away to identify the underlying cause and create an appropriate treatment plan.
Waking up with a sore, stiff neck day after day is frustrating. In most cases, the culprit is an old, unsupportive pillow. Take some time to examine your pillow’s age, quality and comfort. Think about whether it suits your preferred sleep position. Switch to a contoured or orthopedic pillow if needed. Improving your sleep habits also reduces neck strain. If symptoms persist, visit your doctor to rule out any serious medical conditions that require specific treatments. With a few simple tweaks and awareness of your posture, you can solve your pillow pain and wake up feeling refreshed.