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How to Treat a Stiff Neck in the Morning

How to Deal When You Wake Up With a Stiff Neck

Let's be real: the shock of a blaring alarm at 5 a.m. is nothing compared to the jarring pain of waking up with a stiff neck.

The culprit is always a big mystery, too. Did you sleep in a weird position? Did you pull a muscle the day before?

For some answers on this familiar morning conundrum, we reached out to Dr. Beth Froese, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

"Waking up with a stiff neck is a very common experience," Dr. Froese says.

"We 'go to bed well and wake up injured,' wondering what battle we must have waged in the middle of the night to wake up so sore! Truthfully, no fantastic battle was had, but instead, common mistakes are often made that lead up to that morning experience of neck pain and stiffness."

Let's start with sleeping positions — specifically belly sleeping, which could very well be the cause behind your stiff neck.

According to Dr. Froese, belly sleeping creates an extreme rotation of the neck, which can then lead to stiffness and/or pain in the morning.

Oversized pillows can also cause extreme neck flexion, resulting in discomfort.

To reduce the chances of waking up in pain, try sleeping on your back or your side, invest in a quality mattress that doesn't sag (Dr. Froese says this is key for alignment in general), and use a pillow that supports the curvature in your neck.

As a rule, Dr. Froese says that your pillow shouldn't be placed just under your head, but also under your neck. It also shouldn't be too flat, too firm, or too large.

"Cervical pillows help to keep alignment when sleeping on your back," she adds. "If you don't own one, try rolling up a towel and putting it in your pillowcase to maintain support of the natural curve in your neck."

Another option is memory foam pillows, or pillows that conform to your head and neck.

How you sleep is only one potential trigger for morning neck pain, though.

Your daytime habits — yes, like what you did the day before — are also accountable. Poor working ergonomics and excessive phone usage can cause strain on the neck muscles and discs, Dr. Froese says. What's more, daily stress and anxiety can create muscle tightness.

While preventative measures should be addressed, Dr. Froese says there's a few things you can do to help soothe the soreness.

"Heat is a good way to loosen muscle tone in the early morning," she says. "A hot shower is an appropriate first step."

Massaging can also help loosen up the muscles affected, while ice can help reduce inflammation.

While certain medications can help alleviate some of the pain, you should first check with your doctor to analyze any risks.

Keep proper posture top of mind (no slouching!), and try meditation or gentle stretching exercises to help with stress and promote muscle relaxation.

Hopefully, with these tips, you'll wake up without pain and on the right side of the bed.

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