Dr. Amy Wolkin is a physical therapist based in Atlanta, GA. After graduating from Wellesley College in 2012, she pursued dual graduate degrees at Emory University. She graduated in 2017 with her Master of Business Administration and Doctor of Physical Therapy degrees. Her clinical interests are outpatient orthopedics, women’s health, and pediatric sports medicine. She has advanced training in dry needling and pelvic floor physical therapy.
Medically Reviewed by Amy Wolkin, DPT, MBA

How many nights have you been kept up by chronic neck, shoulder or back pain? If you’re reading this, we’re guessing it’s more than a few. Unfortunately, 50% of Americans struggle with chronic back pain that interferes with their ability to work, move and sleep. In fact, back pain is the most common cause of disability worldwide. 

You’ve probably wondered if it’s even possible to get good sleep with a bad back or a stiff neck. The answer is: yes! A life of bad sleep doesn’t have to be your future. We’ve put together six sleeping tips that will teach you how to sleep with shoulder pain, the best way to sleep for neck pain and the best sleeping position for back pain.

Tips For Easing Back, Neck And Shoulder Pain

1. Add Pillows To Your Sleeping Position

Sometimes sleep can be hard to find when your neck is stiff or your back is acting up. Rearranging or adding pillows in can help you figure out how to sleep with neck pain. If you suffer from back or neck pain, we recommend sleeping on your back to ease the pressure or on your side to align your spine

Changing how you sleep is not something that happens overnight, but you can do things tonight to improve your quality of sleep. Pillows might seem like a misleadingly simple answer, but they can provide immediate relief

  • Side sleepers – If you’re a side sleeper with chronic shoulder, neck or back pain, try bringing your legs slighting towards your chest and put a pillow between your legs. 
  • Stomach sleeper – Sleeping on your stomach is already hard on your back and neck, so you should try to adjust this over time if you can. In the meantime, you should try putting a pillow under your pelvis and avoid pillows that put any strain on your neck. You’re better off not using a pillow at all if it strains your neck. 
  • Back sleeper – If you’re a back sleeper –– good job –– you’re in the best position possible. Add a pillow under your knees to preserve the curve of your lower back.This is not recommended if you had a recent knee surgery or replacement. For extra support, you can add in a small pillow or rolled towel at the small of your back. 

2. Choose The Right Pillow

When it comes to sleeping with neck pain or sleeping with shoulder pain, having the right pillow is essential. It’s time to throw away the flat pillow you’ve had for years and invest in one that caters to your needs. Having a supportive pillow is what is going to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. 

Without the right support, you could be putting additional stress on your neck and ultimately make the problem worse. The right pillow will help keep your spine aligned and your neck in a comfortable position. Both the shape and the material of the pillow matter. Most of this comes down to personal preferences and needs –– if you’re allergic to feathers, try a memory foam option.  

What is in your pillow is up to you, though there are some pillow shapes that solve the age-long question: how can I sleep with neck pain?

  • Travel neck pillow: As the name suggests, these horseshoe-shaped pillows are the best option when you need to sleep but can’t lay down. This pillow shape is designed to support your neck without letting your head curve towards your chest or shoulders. You can thank your travel pillows for saving you from a stiff neck!
  • Cervical pillow: Cervical pillows are rounded to support your head and neck and save you from both neck and shoulder pain by keeping your spine aligned. There are some variations in the curves by the pillow. For example, some are flat under your head to support the curve or your neck, while others are contoured to focus on alignment. 
  • Wedge pillow: Placed under your upper body and head, wedge pillows allow you to sleep on an incline, which reduces issues like neck pain, sleep apnea or acid reflux. This type of pillow is exclusively recommended for back sleepers; you could throw your spine out of alignment in other positions. 
  • Body pillow: Body pillows are great for neck and shoulder pain because they encourage healthy spine alignment. Body pillows are especially recommended for pregnant women. While most are rectangular, you do have the option of a U-shaped body pillow.

3. Find The Right Mattress For Your Pain Level

Admittedly, a more expensive tip than the others on the list, but a new mattress could make a huge difference in how to sleep with back pain. A mattress topper is another option that could also alleviate pain. 

Your mattress could be the source of your back pain, in which case it’s time for a new one. Avoid the temptation of diving into a plush, soft mattress. If you have chronic back pain, you’ll be better off with a medium-firm to firm mattress. We recommend that you consult your doctor, physical therapist or chiropractor to identify your specific needs. 

Bedroom and Mattress Modifications 

Living with a disability can impact your sleep and make it difficult to get the quality rest your body needs. There are advisable mattress options designed to support your spine and legs, like a variable posture bed that allows you to adjust the base to your needs. When the trouble isn’t the mattress, additional assistive devices can help you get in and out of bed without pain. 

Here are a few options

  • Mattress inclinator or elevator
  • Rope ladder or pull straps
  • Side railing or grab handles
  • Pillow lifts or support wedges
  • Bed steps

4. Stretch Before Bed

Living with shoulder or neck pain can leave you feeling stiff. Taking the time to stretch out your neck and shoulders will go a long way in relaxing you for sleep. We’re not talking about running in place or hitting the gym; there are plenty of simple stretches you can do right in your bedroom. You should try to do them every night before bed. 

Here are some common stretches you can do: 

  • Neck Circles –– This one is easy. Start by bringing your chin down to the chest and slowly rotate the head towards the shoulder, the back, the other shoulder and finish back with the chin on your chest.
  • Shoulder circles –– While standing, you’ll start by raising your shoulders and moving them in a circle. Then you will lower your shoulders and repeat. 
  • Bear hug –– Start by crossing your arms at the elbows and grasping your shoulders. Next, softly pull your shoulders forward and hold for 20 seconds. Remember to breathe deeply and repeat. 

5. Make Sure You Get Enough Sleep

Sure, this one seems obvious, but we cannot overstate the importance of sleep for your body’s recovery. Sleeping is your body’s favorite thing to do –– next to eating. 

There is a direct link between your sleep habits and your pain levels. If you don’t get enough good sleep, your pain will likely be worse the following day. Of course, neck, back and shoulder pain does get in the way of a goodnight sleep for millions of people. But if you take our advice and add in a few pillows here and there and stretch before bed, you’re doing everything you need to set yourself up for quality sleep. 

Just make sure you give yourself enough time to actually sleep. You might think you’re a little old for a bedtime, but the fact is our bodies like schedules. You won’t regret getting your body used to a consistent sleep schedule. 

6. Evaluate Your Total Sleep Hygiene 

After you’ve ticked off all the other boxes –– pillows, stretches and your sleep position –– it’s still not time to stop. The next step is to think about your sleep hygiene in general. Do you sleep in a really hot room? Or does the breeze from your open window trigger your allergies? Asking yourself these questions will help you decide if your bedroom is in the optimal conditions for sleeping.

As temperatures drop during the winter months, you may notice that your joint pain gets worse. The scientific community hasn’t agreed on what causes the irritation, likely because it could be a number of things –– barometric pressure or tightening muscles. Adding blankets or heating pads during the winter may be a good step to alleviating joint pain.  

Phones and TV are other factors that could stand in the way of consistently good sleep. Maintaining healthy sleep hygiene will be a constant process that is likely to evolve over time –– and that’s okay. Once you have your optimal sleeping routine in place, all you have to do is stick to it.

Final Thoughts

Figuring out how to sleep with back pain or shoulder and neck pain can seem like a never-ending battle. Some of the tips are easy to integrate, while others might take some time. Don’t jump right into buying a new mattress with the hope that it will solve all of your problems. Take the time to research and talk to your doctor about what best suits your needs.


Should I go see a doctor for my neck or back pain?Absolutely, our advice will be the most useful if you know exactly what your needs are. You should consult a doctor immediately if you find your range of motion is limited, you lose feeling in your arms or hands or experience any extreme pain.
How do I choose the right pillow?There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all pillow. What pillow you choose will depend largely on your body type, the position you sleep and your comfort preferences. It will require time and a bit of research on your part. You’ll need to think about the shape, the firmness and the filling of your pillow.
If I have neck pain, should I sleep with a pillow?Not always. Sleeping without a pillow will put more strain on your neck, just as a pillow that’s too big would. The exception of that rule would be for stomach sleepers. If you tend to sleep on your stomach, then you can go pillowless. Though it is worth noting that if you have neck pain, stomach sleeping is not the optimal sleeping position.
Could my mattress be causing my back pain?It’s possible that your mattress could be the source of your back pain. If your bed is too soft, it can interfere with the alignment of your spine. If it’s too firm, it can put a lot of pressure on your joints and lower back.
How do you relieve rotator cuff pain at night?Given that rotator cuff pain will include swelling, how you sleep could potentially add more pain to the situation. A few sleeping positions that are recommended are: sleeping in a reclined position, sleeping on your back with your arm propped up or sleep on your unaffected side.
Why is shoulder pain worse at night?Where there is shoulder pain, there is inflammation. Which unfortunately gets worse at night when you compress it. While we cannot completely control how we sleep, adding pillows to support your shoulder could discourage you from rolling over onto your injury.