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Michigan Head & Neck Institute

Sleep Aches

05. 19. 2017

Sleep Apnea

Healthy Sleeping Positions

Let’s face it – most of us aren’t thinking about the position we sleep in when our head hits the pillow after a long workday.  Nevertheless, the correct sleeping position and sleep quality can have an incredible impact on chronic pain (back, head, neck, shoulder, etc.). A good night’s sleep allows your body to repair/heal itself and prepare for the next day. If you are repeatedly waking up with aches and pain, consider altering your sleep position to get the most effective rest.

The correct sleeping position has an effect on a number of things including how the head and neck are supported, and how your jaw and neck are affected by this support or lack of support.  Position also affects how the muscles in the head, neck and shoulders are stretched and strained. Waking up with daily headaches indicates that you may be sleeping in a poor position. The likelihood of clenching and grinding your teeth increases in certain positions, which is a main contributing factor to daily headaches.  Any strain on the face (head, neck, jaw, shoulders) can cause TMJ-related disorders, or worsen any conditions that may already exist.

the correct sleeping position

For people who are experiencing TMJ symptoms, sleeping on your back is the correct sleeping position for you.  Your pillow should cradle your head and support the proper curve of your neck.  Benefits to sleeping on your back include:


  • Pressure is taken off of the jaw (less likely to clench/grind)
  • The head, neck and shoulders are properly supported
  • The body is aligned correctly in terms of spine, neck and head


If you are waking up with shoulder pain, it’s your neck that’s most likely the underlying source of the pain. Because the muscles of the upper body are working together, the shoulder muscles will have to work harder to support the neck if you are in a disadvantageous position.  Some people benefit from a rolled up towel placed under their neck for added support. This is usually the best sleeping position for shoulder pain.

best sleeping position for shoulder pain

Sleeping on your stomach is the worst position to be in, followed by sleeping on one side with an arm under your head.   The stomach and side positions cause your body to be out of alignment, and in turn worsen any TMJ symptoms.  Side sleeping can put lateral pressure on your jaw, causing a possible increase in bruxism.  If you are going to sleep on your side, try not to curl up too much so that your spine remains in a neutral position.  Additionally, you can place a pillow in between your knees to keep your spine and pelvis aligned properly.

correct side sleeping position

Again, sleeping on your back (supine position) is recommended.  It is very hard to adapt to sleeping on your back, however.  For a lot of people it just does not seem comfortable (only about 14% of people sleep on their back).  Here are some tips to help you get in the habit of sleeping on your back:


  • Make sure your mattress is comfortable, provides adequate support, and is replaced every 5-10 years
  • Check your pillows to make sure that they have enough stuffing and that they provide proper head and neck support (feather pillows usually need replaced every year)
  • Try to keep your arms by your side rather than placing them up near your face or underneath your head
  • Placing a small pillow underneath your knees can help to keep you in position on your back during sleep while combating pressure on the spine

There are several different types of pillows out there (polyester, foam regular, foam contour, feather and latex), so just make sure that you choose one that won’t cause any adverse effects.  Pillows are intended to support the head and neck in a neutral position and minimize stress on cervical structures. Memory foam pillows conform to the contour of your head/neck and many claim to provide proper spine alignment.  Try to avoid a pillow that is too stiff, or too high.  These can cause the neck to stay flexed overnight and not allow your muscles to relax, leading to stiffness and possible pain the next morning. If you are sleeping on your side, make sure that the pillow is higher under your neck than your head for ultimate support.  During travel (plane, train, or car), a u-shaped pillow can be used which prevents your head from dropping to the side.

For more information on the correct sleeping position for you, please contact our office at (586) 573-0438.



Hibi H, Ueda M. Body posture during sleep and disc displacement in the temporomandibular joint: a pilot study.  J Oral Rehabil. 2005 Feb; 32(2): 85-9.

Minagi SAkamatsu YMatsunaga TSato T.  Relationship between mandibular position and the coordination of masseter muscle activity during sleep in humans.  J Oral Rehabil. 1998 Dec; 25(12): 902-7.

Gordon SJGrimmer-Somers KATrott PH. Pillow use: the behavior of cervical stiffness, headache and scapular/arm pain. J Pain Res. 2010 Aug; 11(3): 137-45.




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The contents of this website, such as text, graphics, images, and other materials are for informational purposes only. While there are many commonalities among multiple TMD and sleep apnea cases, each patient is unique. Information on this website should be used to educate the reader about what they should discuss with their doctor if they are suffering from the listed symptoms. The information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician or you may call our office with any questions you may have regarding TMD or sleep apnea. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.

Disclaimer: This site contains selective use of the term 'specialist.' There is no recognized specialty in TMJ. For more information, please contact us.