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Are You Waking Up in Pain? Change Your Sleep Position

Feeling stiff and sore in the morning? The way you sleep may be to blame.

Some sleep positions can put pressure or strain on your body — particularly the back, neck and shoulders. Finding a comfortable sleeping position that keeps your neck and spine aligned is the best way to ensure a good night’s sleep and a pain-free morning, says Dr. George Eldayrie, a board-certified sports medicine physician with Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute. 

Sore Spots


Morning back pain is one of the more common maladies. It is often the result of sleeping positions that put pressure on your spine, causing your back’s natural curve to flatten.

“Stomach sleepers experience morning back pain more frequently since your stomach sinks into the bed, putting pressure and stress on the joints and muscles in your back,” Dr. Eldayrie says.

Many people with morning back pain usually feel better after moving around a bit. If your pain doesn’t go away during the day, you may have an underlying issue, like a slipped or herniated disc that’s exacerbated when you’re sleeping.


If you’ve ever woken up in the morning with shooting neck pain, chances are you strained your neck while sleeping.

Sleeping on your stomach is particularly hard on the neck because your neck may be turned to one side for hours while you sleep, straining the neck muscles. Tossing and turning while sleeping also can create tension in your neck muscles, leading to neck pain. Using an unsupportive pillow or too many pillows is another common cause.


The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body — making it particularly vulnerable to injury and pain, even when sleeping.

Side sleeping is often the culprit for morning shoulder pain. When you sleep on your side, your shoulder bears a lot of your upper body weight. If you sleep with your arm underneath your pillow, this can also pinch your rotator cuff tendon. If you have existing injuries to your rotator cuff or shoulder bursitis, side sleeping can worsen these conditions and intensify pain.

Tips for Better Support

No matter what your preferred sleep position, you can stave off soreness and stiffness with these tips.

Back sleepers: Try sleeping with a pillow under your knees or feet to relieve pressure on your lower back. Use a supportive pillow — foam is best — to keep your head, neck and shoulders in alignment while you sleep.

Side sleepers: Pick a pillow that aligns your vertebrae and supports your neck so that you’re not bending your neck toward either shoulder. This will relieve pressure on the shoulder and upper back, as well as avoid the “kinks” you might feel upon waking.

Stomach sleepers: Try placing a pillow under your pelvis for better lumbar and spinal support. For your head and neck, consider switching to a thinner pillow, since the flatter the pillow, the less angled your head and neck will be while you sleep.

The Right Mattress

The firmness or softness of your mattress affects your spinal health, since a mattress that’s too soft can cause the spine to fall out of alignment and can cause your shoulders to curl underneath you, leading to stiffness in the neck and upper back. A mattress that’s too firm can cause joint pressure in the hips, leading to back pain.

Coping with Stiffness

Here are a few things you can do at home to reduce your pain so you can get on with your day:

Stretching. Loosening the painful muscles and ligaments by stretching can help reduce pain and relieve muscle tension.

Heating pad. This may help loosen and relax your muscles.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Taking these over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen, can help ease inflammation, pain and stiffness.

Massage. Scheduling a gentle massage with hands and fingers or an electric massager can relieve some of the tension and pain in the muscles.

If your pain persists for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor.

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