Woke Up With Back Pain? Here's What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You

An old mattress may be to blame for sore back muscles after sleeping.
Image Credit: DjelicS/E+/GettyImages

You want to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day, but instead you roll out of bed with an achey spine. So, what exactly are the causes of back pain after sleeping?

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Having backaches after you rise and shine suggests that a number of factors could be at play — often problems that irritate the various tissues of your back, says Richmond, Virginia-based David Drake, MD, medical director of the Interventional Pain Clinic at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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"When you look at back pain, there are different layers: The outer layer [is] the fascia, which is a covering over the muscle with a lot of nerves in it. The next layer is the muscle, and the layer after that is where the bones are located — that would be the facet joints," he says. "If you go down deeper than that, then we're talking about the nerves and the discs."

To help you get to the bottom of your pain, here are the reasons why you may get sore back muscles after sleeping, plus what to do to get a more comfortable snooze and alleviate back pain.

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If your back pain is affecting you during and after sleep, talk to your doctor to correctly determine the cause, Dr. Drake says.

1. Your Sleeping Position

According to Dr. Drake, pain in the fascia, or the overlying tissue on muscle, is involved in the majority of cases of back pain after sleeping. Shoulder and neck pain are also common pain areas after sleep, whereas the mid-back is not often a cause of sleep-related back pain, he says.

To get to the root of post-sleep back pain in his patients, Dr. Drake asks them what sleep position they gravitate toward and which one they avoid. If your back pain is worse when your spine is straight — like when you're lying flat on your stomach — your facet joints may be the culprits, he says.

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If sleeping in a curled position aggravates your back pain, the cause may be disc- or nerve-related, Dr. Drake says. And if you tend to sleep on one side because the other side of your back bothers you, it could be a muscular issue, he says.

The fix:​ Your sleep position can actually become the remedy of your back pain if you make some changes, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

However, if your go-to sleep position is contributing to your back pain, changing this tendency is not as easy as it may seem. "We develop patterns over time, and people often become a back sleeper, side sleeper, etc.," Dr. Drake says. "Changing that position after it's become a habit is really a challenge."

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To help stave off your sleep-related back pain, the Cleveland Clinic recommends you snooze on your back with your spine in a neutral position. Sleeping on your back helps evenly distribute your weight, reduce pressure points and ensure correct alignment of your organs.

If you tend to sleep on your side, curling your legs slightly toward your chest and placing a pillow between your legs can help reduce back pain, per the Mayo Clinic. And if you happen to be a side sleeper with pain in your shoulder region, custom pillows and wedges offered by therapists could help, Dr. Drake says.

As far as positions to avoid, sleeping on your stomach is often a no-no if you have back pain, according to the Mayo Clinic, because it can put strain on your back.

Tip

If you enjoy sleeping on your stomach and have trouble changing your sleep position, sleep with a pillow beneath your lower abdomen and pelvis (with or without a pillow under your head, depending on what’s most comfortable to you), per the Mayo Clinic.

2. You Have a Bone Condition

Sometimes bone issues are the cause of your pain after sleeping, Dr. Drake says. Take, for instance, arthritis in your spine, which can cause pain and stiffness along your back, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

If your arthritis is the result of age-related wear and tear, it can also contribute to a condition called degenerative disc disease. This is when the cushion between your spinal joints deteriorates and can cause back pain, stiffness, tingling, numbness and weakness, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The fix:​ How you deal with your arthritis depends on what form of the condition you have, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Some types of arthritis — like osteoarthritis — are the result of aging, whereas other kinds — like rheumatoid arthritis — are autoimmune and cause excess inflammation.

Accordingly, visit your doctor to determine how to best treat your specific condition.

In general, though, certain natural remedies for arthritis may ease your symptoms, including:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating anti-inflammatory foods like oily fish and leafy greens
  • Quitting smoking
  • Managing stress
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage

3. You Have a Pain Condition

Arthritis isn't the only health issue that can lead to back pain after sleeping. If your back muscles are sore after sleeping, a pain condition like fibromyalgia may be to blame.

This chronic pain condition can cause tenderness in muscles, joints, tendons and fascia, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Per the NLM, other symptoms of fibromyalgia besides pain include:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Depressed mood

The fix:​ If you have symptoms of fibromyalgia, visit your doctor to diagnose and treat the condition.

4. You Need a New Mattress

Having a cozy sleep setup is also key to avoiding back pain after sleeping. Snooze on a comfortable, supportive mattress that holds your spine in a neutral position, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The fix:​ If you have an old or uncomfortable mattress, consider getting a new innerspring or foam mattress to support your spine, per the Cleveland Clinic, which may help you avoid mid-back pain after sleeping.

You can also opt for a foam mattress topper to take your current bedding to the next level.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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