What is the correct sleeping position for your neck? The proper neck position for sleeping depends on your sleep position preference and some general body alignment principles.
How to correct forward head posture while sleeping
To correct forward head posture while sleeping, you must first learn to correct forward head posture in standing. Once your neck is positioned correctly in standing, pillows will help you maintain this same posture while sleeping.
The first step for proper neck posture while sleeping is to position your shoulder blades correctly. To do this, first shrug your shoulders up towards your ears. Next, with your shoulders up by your ears, squeeze your shoulder blades together like you are trying to pinch something in between them. Finally, without arching your low back, move the bottom tip of your shoulder blades down towards your waist.
When done correctly, it might feel like your chest is sticking out. This is because you are used to your chest caving in as a result of rounding your shoulders forward. As your body gets used to having your shoulders in the correct position, it will no longer feel like your chest is sticking out.
Next, to understand proper head posture, head to a mirror. Move your chin so it is parallel to the ground. After doing this, it may feel like you are looking down at the floor. This is because your eyes have adjusted to forward head posture where your chin is pointed up. With your chin pointed up, your line of site is higher. With your chin parallel to the ground, your line of site is lower than you are used to. Your eyes will re-adjust to their new position as you practice this correct posture.
With your chin parallel and shoulders back, look at yourself from the side. Your ear lobe should line up with the center of your shoulder. If your ear lobe is towards the front of your shoulder, place your index finger on your chin. Gently guide your chin down and back until the ear lobe lines up as close to the center of your shoulder as possible. This should feel like a slight nod and the back of your neck should stretch and lengthen. Try to make the back of your neck as long as possible.
Proper neck posture while sleeping: for side sleepers
To see if you are in proper neck posture when sleeping, get into proper neck posture when standing. When your posture is correct, lie down on your pillow, relax your muscles, and let your pillow support your neck. Does your neck maintain its position? Does it bend in any way when you lie down on your pillow? If it bends in any way, your pillow is not supporting you correctly.
If your neck pillow is supporting you correctly, you will be able to draw a straight line through your nose, chin, neck and chest. Your shoulders should be down away from your ears as far as is comfortable. Additionally, make sure your pillow is pressed up against the top of your shoulder. There should not be a gap between your shoulder and your pillow.
If you find that your neck is not in the correct position while lying on your pillow, consider using a neck wedge pillow. The contours on a neck wedge pillow support your neck and spine in the proper neck position for sleeping. It is made to help you maintain correct posture, even while you sleep!
Additionally, you will want to avoid curling your upper back into a "C". If you are tempted to do this, try using a leg separator pillow. Place the leg separator pillow as close to your chest as possible and lie your top arm and leg on top of the pillow. Lying your arm and leg on top of a leg separator pillow supports your torso. This additional support oftentimes take away the urge you feel to curl up into a “C.”
Proper neck posture while sleeping: for back sleepers
For back sleepers, sleeping on a neck wedge pillow can correct forward head posture while sleeping. The contours in the neck wedge pillow support the natural curve of the cervical spine. This support maintains your neck in the correct postural position while you sleep.
Depending on the severity of your upper back curve, you may need to use a neck pillow on top of a 10" triangle wedge pillow. The combination of the wedge pillow and neck pillow compensates for more severe forward head posture, allowing you to sleep more comfortably.
Additionally, a back sleeper should always sleep with a knee wedge pillow. Elevating your legs takes the pressure off of your low back. This position fully supports both your upper and lower spine.
Remember to never sleep on your stomach! This exacerbates both neck and upper back pain.
Congratulations! You have learned the correct sleeping position for your neck whether you like to sleep on your back or on your side! Applying this knowledge will have you sleeping soundly in no time.
-Hillary Blare, Doctor of Physical Therapy