How to Treat a Stiff Neck After Sleeping

Feb 10, 2022

At some point, we’ve all woken up with a stiff neck. While it may go away over time, the pain and lack of mobility can be unexpected and cause a lot of inconveniences. Despite these symptoms, most people will try to go about their normal daily routine and push past the pain. However, to avoid more pain or even chronic neck pain, it is important to properly manage a stiff neck in both the short term and the long term. Read on to understand why this happens and how you can find relief.

Why You Wake Up With a Stiff Neck

One of the frustrating things about waking up with a stiff neck is that you do not necessarily know how it happened. After all, you were asleep! There are a few common reasons that this can happen.

Sudden Movements

If you roll over in your sleep or startle in reaction to a dream, the sudden movement in your otherwise relaxed neck may cause sprains or strains in the tissue.

Awkward Angles

When your head and neck settle at an unusual angle in the night, you may be in that position for an extended period without being awake to change it. These positions can stretch and stress muscles, ligaments, and joints beyond their normal capacity.

Pre-existing Injuries

Some injuries that happen during the day, like whiplash, may not become apparent until you wake the next morning. They may also be worsened by sudden movements and awkward angles.

The most common reason for a stiff neck is ultimately a neck strain, which can be caused by a muscle strain or a ligament sprain. Other causes may include facet joint osteoarthritis or cervical degenerative disc disease.

Relief for a Stiff Neck

If you wake up with a stiff neck, you do not just have to wait for it to pass. There are a number of home remedies you can use to find relief.

Ice or Heat Therapy

Applying ice in the aftermath of a neck strain can prevent swelling. Ice should be applied for 10 to 20 minutes at a time and can be followed with heat therapy. Using a heating pad or taking a warm shower can loosen and relax the muscles that are otherwise tightened.

Pain Medication

If the pain and stiffness are significantly limiting your ability to function, an over-the-counter medication may be appropriate. These include ibuprofen and acetaminophen and should always be used sparingly.

Stretching and Self-Massage

Following up on other methods of relief with loosening the muscles and ligaments can help them to stay that way. Stretching and massage can be performed gently, only to the extent that they do not cause further pain.

Activity Modification

Once you have been awake for a while and applied other remedies, you can start to assess whether your symptoms are improving. If you are still experiencing significant trouble moving or pain that is sharp or burning, you should avoid strenuous activities for the day and limit any movements that cause pain. It’s best to walk around and move gently, as a lack of mobility may cause the stiffness to worsen, but it should be done with care.

It may take a day or two before the pain fully resolves, but a stiff neck is generally gone within a week’s time. If the pain worsens or persists, you may need to contact a chiropractor for further evaluation. If the stiff neck is accompanied by a severe headache, fever, arm numbness, tingling, or weakness, immediate medical attention is advised.

Preventing a Stiff Neck While Sleeping

You won’t be able to prevent all stiff necks or control your movements while sleeping, but there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of this problem occurring. By focusing on your sleep habits and environment, you may find yourself waking with less pain.

Sleep Position

Sleeping on your stomach is a position that puts a lot of stress onto the cervical spine, as it means the head is pushed to one side or the other. The best position for sleep is to sleep on the back, as it allows the head and spine to be in a neutral position. Sleeping on the side can also offer a neutral spine. Some people find that sleeping in a reclined position also offers the support that they need.


There is no one pillow that is right for everyone, but pillows can make a big difference. For those sleeping on their back, placing a rolled towel or special cervical pillow underneath the neck can offer additional support. A side sleeper may benefit from placing a pillow between the knees to keep the spine more aligned.


Many people don’t think of the temperature, but it is closely related to neck stiffness. Having cold air blown on you throughout the night, from a fan, vent, or window, can increase the chances of experiencing a stiff neck upon waking. Avoiding this air blowing directly onto the neck may be helpful.


Falling asleep in places like a chair or a couch is likely to cause a stiff neck, as you are not in a neutral position such as a bed. Any time you do not intend to sleep somewhere, the head may droop forward and place a lot of pressure on the neck.

When to See a Doctor

While stiff necks are usually minor and resolve over time with simple remedies, they can be a sign of greater problems if they do not clear up. If you are waking up with a stiff neck routinely, you may want to be seen by a chiropractor to rule out any more insidious root causes. Similarly, if a stiff neck does not resolve after about a week, it may be time to seek professional care.

At AICA Jonesboro, our specialists will work to diagnose any conditions you have, spot misalignments, and create a plan to find relief for your sore or stiff neck. Contact us today to get started.


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