How to Get Rid of Neck Pain After Sleeping Wrong

how to fix neck pain

Do you ever wake up with a stiff neck from sleeping wrong? It can be a discouraging way to begin the day. But with a few physical therapy techniques, you might be able to relieve that neck pain in less than 5 minutes’ time. 

3 Ways to Relieve Neck Pain

Now before we jump in, I want to make sure this is the right article for you. By a “stiff neck” I mean tight, sore muscles in the neck that develop overnight and make it painful to turn your head. However, if you’re also experiencing numbness and tingling down your arm or even into your hand, then you might have a different problem. Consult a physician or physical therapist to test you for what could be a bulging disc issue. 

Otherwise, keep reading for my 3 physical therapy techniques for relieving neck pain!

1. Neck Traction

We PTs use traction to decompress the spine and create space in the cervical vertebrae of the neck. It helps you “take a load off” by supporting the weight of your head so your neck can decompress. 

neck traction technique

With your hands like the photo to the right, cuff your fingers around the back of your head so the base of your hands rest against your jawline. Gently pull upwards towards the ceiling, as if you’re trying to make yourself taller. This simple motion alone should start to relieve a bit of the pressure along your neck.

Gently repeat this movement a few times, holding it for 10 to 15 seconds, and do it throughout the morning to help relieve any lingering soreness.

neck pain traction exercise

There are two variations for this neck traction technique. The first is to perform the traction while seated, say, at your desk. Place your elbows on a flat surface and, with the same hand position as before, shift your weight back into your hands to decompress your neck.

neck traction for neck pain

So far we’ve been looking at ways to perform hand-assisted neck traction, but you can also use a towel to assist this movement. Grab a hand towel and wrap it around your neck, with one end in each hand. With the same motion as before, use the towel to “dis-tract” the spine and slightly lift the base of your head up and away.

neck traction with a towel

2. Decompression Range of Motion

The second technique for getting rid of neck pain in the morning is called decompression ROM. When your neck is stiff, you can’t turn your head as far without pain, which further stiffens the muscles and limits your mobility. To better restore that range of motion, you can decompress the spine by elevating your shoulders. 

The tension of your shoulders can pull on your neck and cause those stiff muscles to spasm even more. So tuck a pillow or plush folded towel under each arm so that your upper arms rest and don’t hang from your shoulders. The pillows will support the weight of your shoulders so your neck can be completely relaxed as you work on its range of motion.

neck range of motion
neck range of motion

With your neck relaxed, slowly rotate your head side to side, gradually increasing your distance through the range in a pain-free way. Keep turning your head, alternating directions, for 20 to 30 seconds every 20 to 30 minutes. You can also change directions and look up and down to work on a different set of muscles.

decompression for neck pain

If you don’t keep a couple of pillows in your office (though that sounds comfy), try a variation of this technique at your desk. Stand with your hands flat on your desk in a modified pushup position. Here your desk will support the weight of your shoulders so gravity isn’t pulling directly on your vertebrae. Again, try to perform 20 to 30 seconds of this movement, 2 to 3 times each hour. 

3. Neck Mobilization

And finally my favorite technique: neck mobilization using a towel.

Find the side of your neck that’s sorest or stiffest and place a towel along that area. For example, if the left side is stiffer than the right, then drape the towel over your shoulders and hold the left end with your left hand. This will “lock down” that side of your body so you don’t tense up or raise your left shoulder as you do this. 

neck mobilization exercise

Next, grab the right end of the towel in your right hand and pull the towel up and across your jawline to assist as you rotate towards your stiff left side. Work slowly into the range and repeat 5 to 10 times, gradually increasing how far you turn. Pay attention to how this feels and only go as far as you can tolerate. 

Even if the other side of your neck isn’t stiff, repeat this technique on the other side and in the other direction. Alternating sides can help improve your range of motion, so be sure to return to the stiff side for a few more repetitions. 

There’s one small variation to this mobilization technique in terms of hand placement. Try switching your hands so that they hold opposite ends of the towel. This will slightly alter how your neck feels, so choose whichever placement feels better and less painful. 

neck towel mobilization

Fix Neck Pain for Good

These three techniques of traction, decompression range of motion, and mobilization are invaluable for treating neck pain. But why not root out the cause of the problem? To figure out why your neck started hurting in the first place, you might need to examine how you’re sleeping. Check out this post for 3 sleeping positions that could be causing your neck pain.  

Tim Fraticelli, DPT | Physical Therapist

Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™ and founder of He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your financial health.