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Sleep positions and neck pain

November 4, 2011 2:56:33 PM PDT
That pain in your neck might be due to arthritis, or even a slipped disk putting pressure on a nerve in your neck or arm.

But how you sleep could be making it worse.

Many of us have seen tapes of people in contorted position during sleep.

You might start out on your side, but twisting and turning can put you on your stomach with your neck in a twist.

It's no wonder your neck pain gets worse.

50-year-old Bob Castelo has some arthritis in his neck, and he's visiting the doctor for the symptoms he's had for about eight years.

"After a long flight or car drive, or sometimes after a night of sleep I'd wake up with pain in my neck and shoulder," Castelo said.

It could be related to how he sleeps.

"I'm a stomach sleeper, I turn my neck to the side and I couldn't do that for the last few weeks," Castelo said.

That stomach sleeping, with the neck twisted to one side, can increase pressure on the nerves to the neck and arms.

For those with joints that are already arthritic, or who have a slipped disk pressing on a nerve, sleep position can make things worse.

"The key is to try and create a normal and natural alignment of the neck as possible," said Dr. Joseph Feinberg, Hospital for Special Surgery.

Dr. Joe Feinberg is head of rehab medicine at HSS, and recommends sleeping on your back and alternatively, sleeping on your side as the best ways to align your neck with your lower spine.

He suggested to Bob that he roll up a hand-towel, and put it in the pillow-case.

The pillow holds your head; the towel supports the neck in the side-sleeping or back-sleeping positions.

The rolled towel technique might be the best tool to train you into more comfortable sleep.

"If the patient uses the roll, and is comfortable, I think the body will somehow naturally adapt to that position," Dr. Feinberg said.

Bob Castelo says the roll to support his neck helps him sleep better without pain, and he's getting used to it more and more with time.

He's also getting regular physical therapy to reduce tightness in his neck muscles, and to stretch and strengthen them, which is always a good idea for the underlying arthritis.


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