In most cases, a sore neck in the morning results from your sleeping position, the type of pillow you use, or other sleep issues. It could also be related to an underlying condition like an injury or osteoarthritis.

Waking up with a sore neck is not how you want to start your day. It can quickly bring on a bad mood and make simple movements, like turning your head, painful.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the causes of morning neck pain and what you can do to feel better.

You may not give much thought to your body position while you sleep or the kind of pillow you use. But both your sleeping position and pillow can trigger a stiff, sore neck, and also lead to back pain and other types of pain.

Research shows that sleeping problems may be at the root of up to 5 percent of new cases of chronic pain. Many of these factors are controllable, which means that by making some changes you may be able to alleviate your neck pain, and other types of pain, too.

Your sleeping position

Everyone has their preferred sleeping position. But if yours is on your stomach, you’re not doing your neck any favors. When you sleep on your stomach, your neck may be twisted to one side for hours at a time. This can strain your neck muscles, and make them feel sore and stiff in the morning.

Tummy sleeping can also put a strain on your back, especially if you sleep on a mattress without a lot of support. This can cause your belly to sink into the bed, which can put stress and pressure on your spine and the muscles in your back.

Your pillow

Your head and neck spend many hours every night on your pillow, which is why choosing the right one is key to a healthy, pain-free neck. A pillow that doesn’t support your head and neck properly can create tension in your neck muscles, and cause neck pain.

Feather or memory-foam pillows may allow your head to be “cradled” at night, allowing for a neutral spine and neck.

Sudden movement

Sudden movements, like sitting up quickly or flinging your limbs around in a dream, can strain your neck muscles. Tossing and turning while you’re sleeping, or trying to sleep, can also create tension and stress in your neck.

Previous injury

Some kinds of injuries, like whiplash or sports injuries, may not always hurt at first. The full physical effects may only be felt days later. If you were injured in a way that might have hurt your neck, you may go to bed feeling okay, but wake up the next morning with a very sore, stiff neck.

Other causes of neck pain when you wake up

There are certainly other causes that can also contribute to you waking up with neck pain. In some cases, you may develop a sore neck during the day, too. Some common causes of neck pain include:

  • poor posture during the day
  • working too long at a computer, or watching television for too long without changing positions
  • osteoarthritis in one of the upper spinal joints
  • nerve compression caused by a herniated disk or bone spur in your neck

If you wake up with a sore neck, there are several remedies you can try to help ease the pain. You likely don’t need to see a doctor, especially if you don’t have any other symptoms, and you haven’t had a sore neck for long. Here are some self-care options you can try:

  • Apply ice or a cold pack to the sore part of your neck for 20 minutes at a time. This can help reduce inflammation in your neck muscles.
  • If you’ve had pain for a day or more, apply a heat pack to the sore area for 20 minutes at a time. This can help to soothe and relax the muscles.
  • Try over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Do some gentle exercises, like walking or yoga. This can help keep the blood flowing to your neck. Don’t stop moving altogether. Not moving can cause your muscles to tighten up.

To help prevent neck pain when you wake up, there are steps you can take to support your neck and reduce the strain on your neck muscles.

  • If you usually sleep on your stomach, try sleeping on your side or back instead.
  • If you sleep on your side, try putting a pillow between your legs. This can help keep your neck aligned with your spine.
  • When sleeping on your side, make sure the pillow isn’t higher under your head than it is under your neck. Straining your muscles even a little during the night can cause soreness by morning.
  • Try using a feather pillow, which can conform easily to the shape of your neck and head. Feather pillows tend to lose their shape over time, so it’s best to replace them every year or two.
  • Pillows made with “memory foam” can also conform to the contours of your head and neck, and can help keep your neck supported.
  • Avoid using a pillow that is too stiff or too deep. This can cause your neck muscles to be flexed overnight.
  • If your mattress is sagging in the middle, consider replacing it with a medium-firm mattress that can support your back and neck.
  • During the day, try to maintain proper posture when standing, walking, and sitting, particularly when at a desk or using a computer. Avoid hunching your shoulders and bending your neck too far forward.
  • Try to hold your phone at eye level instead of bending your neck forward to look at it.
  • Avoid tucking your phone between your ear and your shoulder.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help strengthen your muscles, including those in your neck. It can also help improve your posture and relieve stress that may be causing stiff muscles.

A couple of simple exercises can help keep your neck muscles strong and limber, which may reduce the risk of waking up with pain in your neck.

Neck stretch

  1. Stand up straight with your hands at your sides.
  2. With your neck and back straight, slowly turn your head to the left until you feel a slight stretch.
  3. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds and then slowly turn your head to the right and do the same thing.
  4. Repeat 3 or 4 times on each side. You can do this exercise every day.

Dumbbell shrug

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keep your chin up and your neck straight.
  3. With a dumbbell in each hand (or a full milk jug or similar object), slowly move your shoulders up towards your ears. Do the movement slowly so that you feel the muscles contract in your upper back and neck.
  4. Hold for a second and then lower your shoulders back down as you exhale.
  5. Repeat 8 to 10 times. Try this exercise 3 times a week.

Neck pain can often heal on its own. If your sore neck doesn’t get better after a few days of self-care, or if the pain gets worse, consider seeing your doctor to find out what’s causing your pain.

It’s important to call your doctor immediately if you have neck pain and any of these symptoms:

Waking up with a sore neck is a common problem. But there are ways to help resolve this issue.

Consider making changes to your pillow, mattress, and sleeping position, and make sure your sleeping environment is as comfortable as possible.

During the day, pay attention to your posture and try to shift your position often so your muscles stay relaxed and limber. Regular exercise can also help keep your neck muscles healthy and strong.