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Dear Dr. Wendy,

For the past three or four months I have been waking most mornings with a very stiff neck and a dull headache. It lasts about an hour or two and then I feel fine the rest of the day. I am a 42-year-old man who exercises regularly and is in good health. I haven’t had any injuries to my neck, and headaches are very uncommon for me. Could this be arthritis? Is there anything I can do about it?

Tim C.

Dear Tim,

While arthritis does have the hallmark symptom of pain and stiffness upon rising that gets better with movement, it is likely that your pain is due to something simpler. Poor sleep position, the wrong pillow or misalignments in the spine are more likely to blame for the achy head and neck.

Sleep position should be as neutral as possible. Sleeping on your stomach is the worst for your neck because your head has to be turned so far to either side just so you can breathe. Sleeping on your side or your back is easier on the neck.

When sleeping on your back, the natural curve of your neck should be supported. A small neck roll used in addition to a flatter, softer pillow can help you support the curve to keep your neck in a neutral position. Another good option is a pillow with a built in curve for the neck and a hollowed out part for the head. What you don’t want is a pillow that is too high or too firm and pushes your chin toward your chest all night.

For side sleeping you need a thicker pillow. It is important to keep your neck aligned with the rest of your spine and avoid sleeping with your chin tucked toward your chest. Find a pillow that matches the width of your shoulders. If the pillow is too thick, your neck and head will be bent upward. On the other hand, if you use one that is too flat, your head and neck will be bent downwards.

If sleep position and your pillow are on point, your problem might be more of a chiropractic issue. Misalignment of the vertebra in your neck could also be the source of pain, stiffness and headaches. A chiropractor can find these areas and gently adjust them back into their proper position to eliminate your symptoms.

Do you have a question to ask us? Please email them to

**This Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

• • •

Dr. Wendy Cunningham is a doctor of chiropractic, certified acupuncturist and has her master’s degree in nutrition.

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