How often do you wake with morning pain from sleeping and feel like you “slept funny”?
Your neck or back is sore and the irony is that there’s little funny about it.
In these moments it’s easy to assume you must have slept in a bad position overnight particularly because you probably went to bed feeling good. Something must have happened in between, right? Otherwise, why did you wake up sore? Perhaps this phenomenon has even prompted you to consider an expensive new pillow or mattress in the hope that it solves the problem. In short, it can be an uncomfortable, frustrating and repetitive cycle.
So what if I was to tell you that waking up with morning pain from sleeping isn’t necessarily what you think it is?
What if I could provide you with the perspective needed to hopefully prevent it? Thankfully things aren’t as they may seem here.
The Root Cause of Neck and Back Pain from Sleeping
To understand what’s important here let’s appreciate how brilliant the body is.
Your tissues are seriously robust yet happily adapt to whatever is asked of it (knowingly or unknowingly). This adaptation occurs in the face of repetition and is why practice 'makes perfect’.
Whether it’s more strength, more fitness, more relaxation, etc. the more you expose your body to something, the more your body will happily adapt to reflect it. The caveat is it’s also true for the negative influences, except in this case your body will adapt to buffer against it.
If you regularly slouch on the couch each night your body will morph to reinforce against that frequently overloaded tissue. And it will cope and cope until it can’t. The idea here is that the body is forever working hard behind the scenes - for better or worse, trying to provide you with a machine capable of supporting your life choices. But it can only tolerate so much of the bad stuff.
So it’s important to recognize that musculoskeletal dysfunction (much like improved function) needs time to build. The body is generally far too robust and tolerant to allow one innocuous incident to break the dam wall. For you to wake up sore after lying down and sleeping, consider how overloaded your neck and back tissue must already be. Why can’t it tolerate a sub-optimal pillow or mattress (if it actually is) for one night? Or why was it just that one night and not the next? There has to be something broader going on.
Ask yourself this question:
What has already set your neck and back up to fail overnight?
Morning Pain Has Little to Do With Sleeping Positions
Perhaps surprisingly, the catalyst for morning pain from sleeping has little to do with sleeping at all. It does, however, have everything to do with the day/s before.
This is an idea that you will most likely already be familiar with. Remember that time you worked too hard at the gym or in the garden and got some muscle soreness the next day? It’s the same idea. If you decided to do a thousand squats at the gym you would probably expect to wake up sore the next day. Your legs most likely wouldn’t be sore before bed. But once you fall asleep and your body has a chance to adapt you’ll wake with the consequences. The only difference here is that a thousand squats will stand out.
The challenge to solving the mystery of “sleeping funny” is that the cause often won’t stand out unless you know what to look for.
What Is the True Cause of Neck and Back Pain From Sleeping?
When discussing this idea with my patients it’s often met with confusion. Most don’t immediately feel as though they did anything physically wrong of note. No poor lifting, nothing new or unusual, nothing stands out. And that’s kind of the point.
This is because it’s not what you’ve done that registers, it’s how you've done it and for how long. As a general rule, the spine loves to be held straight and to bend in a global sense. But it doesn’t enjoy local hinging for too long.
Consider this, do you spend time slouching on the couch, in the car or at a computer? Are you always looking down at your phone? Do you sit up in bed and read for hours prior to falling asleep?
What things do you do most often throughout the day where your spine isn’t perfectly straight against gravity? As it turns out, waking up with morning pain can be looked at as your body’s way of trying to tell you it’s not tolerating something.
But What if Sleeping Funny Still Makes the Most Sense to You?
Even if having slept 'funny' still seems the most viable excuse to you, consider the effects of gravity and how long you might be doing it for.
As gravity is acting across us when we sleep our spine doesn't have to work as hard to maintain our position compared to the same one when upright. If you are sitting up and looking down at your phone, the weight of your head can place huge amounts of stress through your neck and upper back. If you are lying down the effects of gravity are dispersed across your whole body. You can absolutely still be in a less than perfect shape but the physical consequences are more limited.
Interestingly, if you also take the time to consider how long you spend in certain positions during the day, you might be horrified. It’s not unusual to sit for 10-14 hours. That’s a day. If a good night’s sleep lasts seven or eight hours, that’s still potentially half as much time in comparison.
By all means, consider both if you think it’ll help but it might be worthwhile to prioritize the bigger potential threat first as it might be the key to unlocking everything else.
What Is the Best Mattress and Pillow?
At this point, it's important to note that certain pillows and mattresses will absolutely affect how you feel in the morning - particularly if you already suffer from neck or back pain. If you’ve chosen something that genuinely helps you sleep and feel better, then that’s absolutely fine. Just be mindful that if those day-to-day postures and positions aren’t good enough a new pillow or mattress may only buffer your issues, not solve them.
Now that may be good enough for you, and that’s obviously fine, but just know that as soon as you go on that weekend away on foreign bedding, those old issues might get re-exposed. Why not at least consider trying to improve those daytime postures and restore that natural buffer again? If you can only tolerate a certain pillow or mattress, what does that say about the already fragile state of your spine?
If you wake up one day (or every day) and feel pain from sleeping, please take a moment to consider what you did with your spine the day before. If you have neck pain from sleeping, think long and hard about how you positioned it.
Did you spend two hours before bed with your nose buried in a book or on your phone? Are you always looking up or down at work or at home? Is there a lack of one standout feature, but a common theme throughout your day?
If you have back pain from sleeping consider how straight you keep it on the couch, driving or using the computer. Do you spend hours a day bending over?
Be mindful that your body isn’t tolerating something from the day before. It's highly likely you're waking up with the consequences in the morning. You just need to work out what that something is.
By all means consider what effect your pillow, mattress and sleeping position will have on your morning state. But just be aware that there is likely to be something far more impactful to consider. Try to improve the shapes and positions you unknowingly expose your spine to each day. If you can, you might be pleasantly surprised at how you start to feel in the morning.
Let’s leave feeling sore in the morning to the worthwhile pursuits!
Do you often wake with pain from sleeping? What things from the day before might be causing your issues? Let me know in the comments!