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Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author

Waking up after a good night’s sleep is a great way to start your day, but millions of adults are more likely to wake up with back or neck pain.

The main cause of this neck and back pain is our lack of movement.  For five to eight hours each night we lie immobile—and it is that immobility that wreaks havoc on your spine. If you’re not in as close to a neutral spine position as possible, certain muscles get sore as they overwork to stabilize the body while you sleep, explains Dr. Stuart Yoss, a Chicago-area chiropractor.

Since it’s impossible to force yourself to stretch while you sleep, Moji has researched some other options.  As with sports, equipment is crucial to take care of your body while you sleep.  Making sure that you have a quality mattress, the right pillows, and proper posture in bed are good first steps to capturing that elusive good night’s sleep.


Buying a mattress

Your first step to a sore-free slumber is to have a good mattress that supports the natural S-shape curves of the spine. If you wake up with stiffness, numbness, aches and pains, if you’ve had a better night’s sleep elsewhere or if your mattress sags, it’s probably time for a new one, according to the Better Sleep Council. (Same with pillows, by the way: Replace them when they get old, mushy, or are visibly falling apart.)

Don’t pick out a mattress after lying on one for just a few minutes. It’s a good start, but Yoss suggests getting one with a 30-60 day trial period to see if it’s right for your body.

Look for a medium-firm mattress. If a mattress is too hard then hips, shoulders and other body parts that press against the mattress will be sore after long periods of lying still. There will also be gaps between the mattress and your body. If it’s too soft, the mattress won’t provide adequate spine support.

Posture in bed

Just as proper posture’s important when you sit and stand, it’s also important when you’re asleep. Avoid sleeping on your stomach, which exaggerates the low back arch, especially if your mattress is old. Stomach sleeping also creates stress in your neck, because your head turns to one side for long periods of time.

The ideal position to sleep in is on your back. The head and neck should be level with the mid/lower spine. Some people place a pillow underneath the knees to neutralize spine position. The pillow under your head should also maintain a neutral position. If you have two pillows, your head may be bent too far up and forward, which eliminates the normal cervical curve.

If you’re a side sleeper, the pillows supporting your head should be the width of your shoulders to maintain a neutral position.  If you use down pillows, says Yoss, be aware that your head may sink too far into the pillow and/or may be bent or shifted toward one side, causing neck or back stress. Side sleepers can bend their legs and put a pillow between the knees to take stress off the hip joints and maintain a neutral spine. This is especially important for women, says Yoss, who have wider hips.

Set the mood

Being relaxed before crawling into bed is another tool for achieving that elusive goal of pain-free sleep. Follow these steps from the Better Sleep Council:

  • Make sleep a priority by keeping a consistent bedtime and wake-up schedule, including on the weekends.
  • Create a bedtime routine that is relaxing. Experts recommend reading a book, listening to soothing music or soaking in a hot bath.
  • Create a room that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool for the best possible sleep.
  • Keep work materials, computers and televisions out of the bedroom.
  • Exercise regularly, but complete workouts at least two hours before bedtime.
  • If you sleep with a partner, your mattress should allow each of you enough space to move easily. A queen mattress is ideal for two people sharing a mattress.
  • Avoid eating, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine close to bedtime. These can lead to poor sleep, keep you awake or disrupt sleep later in the night.

Other tips

If you read in bed, don’t strain the neck in an unnatural position. If you go from that position to sleeping with bad posture or on an old mattress, you’ll likely wake up with back and/or neck pain.

Along with a supportive mattress and proper posture in bed, core exercises that strengthen the abs and back are also a great way to prevent back pain in bed. We use our muscles all the time-even when we sleep-so strengthening exercises are an important part of preventing soreness and tightness after periods of inactivity.

If you do wake up with a sore neck and/or back, Yoss recommends the following stretches (either in bed or out):

  • Lay on your back and gently pull one knee toward your chest, hold for 20 seconds, then switch legs (to stretch lower back)
  • To stretch hamstrings, lie flat on your back with both legs straight in front of you. Slowly lift one leg toward the ceiling, using hands behind your knee to gently pull. Hold 20 seconds, lower and switch legs.
  • On hands and knees, gently arch back up then bow back down (cat/camel), repeat.
  • Do the child’s pose to gently stretch and relax back (’s pose)
  • For an aching neck, gently stretch by turning head slowly from one side to the other, and moving head slowly forward and back.

If you already suffer from a back or neck injury, check with a healthcare professional for appropriate exercises.


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