I hear this phrase all the time when patients come in with neck or back pain. “I slept funny,” is often the reason people give when asked about what caused the pain. It makes sense that we think so, since often we go to bed feeling fine and then wake up with some aggravating, or in some cases debilitating, pain. After seeing this play out time and again, I can say that there is nothing at all funny about “sleeping funny.”
When people complain about how their sleep messes up their body and alignment, I first educate them on Ideal sleep positioning.
For back sleepers, the pillow under the head should be thin, so it does not push the head and neck too far forward all night. Cervical pillows are great for supporting the neck curve while allowing the head to lay further back. A pillow or bolster under the knees is also very helpful for back sleeping.
Alternatively, side-sleepers should use a thicker pillow under the head to fill the space between the ear and shoulder. Consider where your head is relative to your shoulders, and make sure it is not kinking to one side. I also recommend a pillow between the knees and arms for side sleeping so we are not caving in on ourselves. Body pillows are great for this purpose.
Having said all that, we must deal with the reality that even if we fall asleep in the perfect position, once we’re unconscious, we have no control over where we move.
Sometimes I even wake up on my stomach, the worst position for alignment! (Bad chiropractor!) Yet there are other things we could do to improve how we feel in the morning. Hydrating well throughout the day is a major help. People often wake up in pain because generally we are all dehydrated in the morning. All night long we’re losing water due to perspiration (especially if one likes to keep it toasty under the covers). We are essentially baking ourselves all night and then wake up stiff, dry toast in the morning. So any areas of tightness, tension or injury will feel worse upon waking up. Hydrating more throughout the day and drinking a large glass of water first thing in the morning should offset this.
Recently, I had my very own “funny sleeping” experience...
Last week I woke up with left sided neck pain, out of nowhere! My first thought was “I must have slept wrong.” Yet really, I slept the same way I often do, on the same pillows, same bed. So it was time for detective work. What could have changed? I thought back over the days prior. There were plenty of suspicious culprits. Just the night before, I was watching a movie on the couch with my significant other and for a while laid my head on his shoulder, cranking my head to the right. Not very ergonomic, but cozy at the time! Earlier that day I had gone skiing for the first time this year. I felt fine when on the slopes and toppled over just once (somewhat gracefully at low speed). But despite the mildness of that experience, I was using muscles that haven’t been used for a long time and may have had some protective muscle spasms when I fell. So there was that. Then I thought to the night before that day (the night of Christmas), when so full of food and drink, I quickly fell into a food coma on a less than ideal pillow at a family member’s home. So there’s that. Then of course, all the days prior when I was stressed, getting gifts ready for the holidays, bent over wrapping presents. Add that onto the tension list.
Just in the past week, I did a number of things that have been adding stress to my body and neck. And what didn’t I do? I certainly had not been hydrating well this whole holiday time, while eating richer foods, sugary sweets and drinking wine. I also have not been doing posture exercises, stretching/strengthening my neck or using my cervical traction block. All these factors led to a “perfect” storm of neck pain. I know that I know better. One of my favorite quotes is “the greatest gap in life is the one between knowing and doing.” I am human, and I let things go during the holidays as many of us do. It is a lesson for me, and I hope it can be helpful to anyone reading this.
The Bright Side of Pain
Experiencing this kind of neck pain gives me more compassion and understanding for the people who come to me in pain, and so I take it as a gift. It also provides me an opportunity to heal myself and focus more on self-care. It most definitely makes me grateful for my usual full and pain-free neck range of motion, something I have taken for granted.
It is often the case that we don’t truly appreciate the good function of a body part until it’s gone.
Lastly, this experience has taught me about what kind of expectations to have when trying to help people with painful problems. It is wonderful when one adjustment does the trick to relieve someone’s pain. Yet my neck pain did not happen in one day. It was an accumulation of what I had been doing for days, weeks, possibly months before. So I cannot expect for it to go away with one adjustment or one massage or one really good stretch. Healing takes time, and so I must be patient. The word patient and patience comes from a Latin word that means suffering. They seem to all connect well. We must be patient with our suffering, accepting and gentle. When we approach our problems from that perspective, the healing begins.
Over the past week, I have been adjusted twice, had my neck/upper back muscles worked on and released, stretched & strengthened, heated, used my Apex Cervical Orthotic, drank more water, ate nutritious foods and rested more. I can very thankfully say that my neck is now almost back to normal and improving each day. If the pain and stiffness persisted beyond 2 weeks (with all the healing work I’ve been doing) I would want to get a set of x-rays to see if something more serious was happening.
So if you wake up one day feeling some pain in your neck or elsewhere, look to your life before you blame your pillow. Consider all the things you could have done or didn’t do enough of in the past month or year. With that information, a bodywork professional, such a chiropractor or massage therapist will better be able to help you and make recommendations. And most certainly, have patience with your healing process. When we take this approach and put it to action, one bout of neck pain can wind up changing the course of our lives.