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Upper Back Pain: How to Stop it Before & After Sleep with 3 Tricks

Published November 10, 2017

If you have upper back pain when sleeping it is a strong indication you need to change your sleeping habits and work to improve posture during waking hours. Pain is not normal. It’s your body telling you to make a change — for the better.

“For about six weeks I have been experiencing mid to upper back pain when I wake up in the morning. The pain is so bad, I can't go back to sleep. I have to get out of bed and start walking around or sit in a chair (with a pillow in front of my face screaming) for the pain to subside,” recalls Jonathan Debro, a herniated disc patient from Augusta, Maine. “After an hour or two, the pain does disappear. It seems to be emanating from my spine and tensing up those back muscles near the vertebrae but I'm no doctor.”

Debro has been seeing a chiropractor and massage therapist for about four weeks now. “It has not helped because the pain is only after I sleep,” the patient adds.

We all do the best we can with what we have while living with chronic upper back pain. After a long day, getting into bed and falling fast asleep would be normal in a perfect world but we do not live in that perfect world.

Debro is only 23 years old. He helps his dad deliver produce twice a week while working as a full-time sales associate at Sears, where he's on his feet all day. He says that may cause his lower back pain, but that discomfort goes away when he's not working. “Then, I wake up with upper back pain. If it's not one thing, it's another,” Debro confesses.

A broken clock is still right twice a day. Even though you may feel as if you are broken there is still hope for a better way, which starts and ends with sleep.

Habits Create Chronic Back Pain

Have you tried treatment option after treatment option like Debro has and nothing seems to help your upper back pain? Do you get frustrated at night because all you want to do is sleep, but you are in so much back pain, you simply cannot get there?

Experiencing upper back pain during or after sleeping, when it’s not apparent any other time, suggests that it may be worth it to try a couple tricks.

The modern sitting lifestyle most of us practice, where we drive to work, slump at a computer all day, then drive home and slouch in front of a television, provides all of the ingredients for shaping your body in profound and painful ways.

Maybe your head juts forward from staring at a screen or the traffic ahead. Perhaps you slouch with poor posture and while doing so, your shoulders roll in from typing or holding a steering wheel?

Reduce Postural Stress

Those stresses, individually and especially when combined, can result in occasional or chronic upper back pain. And when you’re in pain, you compensate and adapt your body motions in even more unbalanced ways, creating a vicious spiral that makes you weaker and more prone to injury.

Helping you live strong every day, Nancy Clark of Live Stronger — a licensing partner of the LIVESTRONG Foundation says, “Spinal degeneration can induce pain at night or upon awakening, but this condition will persist in daylight hours as well.”

Clark also asserts that individuals who experience back pain only after sleeping probably have chronic problems with their posture or sleep environments instead.

Secondary causes of pain in the back, shoulders, and neck may include stress and anxiety that create muscle tension and encourage a tightly curled sleeping position.

You'll want to choose a supportive posture pillow designed for additional cervical support. Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your legs will also help maintain body alignment, which is necessary to prevent further damage to your spine.

And just as finding the right position is crucial, getting the appropriate amount of sleep is just as important. And, on the contrary, getting too much sleep may actually hurt your back pain and is linked to increased inflammation, depression, obesity risk, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Experts at the National Sleep Foundation say that somewhere in between seven to nine hours is considered healthy for most adults 18 to 64 years-old.

It Could Be Your Pillow

Having a pillow that's too thin causes your back to bend downward putting your body at a rather awkward angle. Oppositely, if the pillow is too thick, it may cause your spine to also bend unnaturally upward.

Both scenarios may be contributing to your upper back pain. If your head is supported at the correct level, the muscles in your neck and back will be able to completely relax. Pressure on your discs and muscles will be diminished and, as a result, your back pain reduced.

Westerners are acclimated to traditional “soft” pillows containing down or polyester fibers. Most of these traditional soft pillows will collapse under pressure and cannot support your head adequately throughout the night.

In fact, many people find themselves using two pillows or folding their pillow in half in an attempt to support their head at the proper level. Fiddling with pillows in the middle of the night is not conducive to good sleep.

If you’re able to sleep on your back, you’re one of the few. Only 14 percent of Americans sleep on our backs, yet back sleeping can help reduce back and neck pain, minimize the effects of acid reflux and decrease wrinkles.

Back sleeping can exacerbate snoring issues for some. It also isn’t recommended during pregnancy, but it’s still considered the healthiest way to sleep. It holds that title because it allows your head, neck, and spine to maintain a neutral position — they’re in near ideal alignment when lying on a flat surface. Most doctors and sleep experts recommend it, if you can pull it off.

Couple sleeping.
If changing your pillow and sleeping positions do not provide pain relief, consider a strengthening exercise program. It’s likely your habits during the day are causing you that upper back pain while sleeping. Debro took our advice and reports his upper back pain is noticeably better. Paired with light exercise and aqua therapy, he's doing so much better.

Last change: March 7, 2019