Googling, “my head hurts when I lay down on my pillow”? A top Doctor shares 3 sleep positions that could be to blame

Ever Googled, “my head hurts when I lay down on my pillow?”

If you answered yes, then chances are you’ve been plagued by a dull ache pre-shuteye that leaves you wondering how to get to sleep (opens in new tab) at all.

There’s nothing worse than waking up with a banging headache, be it a menstrual migraine (opens in new tab) or stress-induced. Considering that sleep is normally an easy cure, you’ll be surprised to hear that one in thirteen of us regularly wake up with a headache (and no, this doesn’t count the booze-induced kind that requires you to reach for your go-to hangover cures, either).

A bit about our experts, before we start. My name’s Ally Head (opens in new tab) and I’m the Health Editor at Marie Claire UK. I’m also an eight-time marathoner, Boston Qualifying runner, and migraine sufferer. 

I’m lucky to get to talk to experts day in, and day out as part of my job, and so I knew that for everything you need to know about your nighttime zzz’s causing headaches and pain, Doctor Mariam Adegoke (opens in new tab), GP and founder of Adegoke Wellness Clinic (opens in new tab) was one of the best people to ask. She’s an experienced doctor who spent years working in A&E before setting up her own clinic, so she’s well qualified to answer your need-to-knows. 

Head hurt when you lay down on your pillow? It’s more common than you’d think. Here, she talks you through how to avoid – and overcome – it.

My head hurts when I lay down on my pillow. Can I get a headache from sleeping wrong?

Short answer: yes, you can, according to the expert. But why? Well, bad sleeping posture could be to blame, especially if your body stays in one position during your eight hours of slumber.

“Sleeping on your front can cause headaches as your back is arched,” explains Doctor Adegoke. As she points out, your neck is twisted, too.

Not only that, but generally when you’re sleeping, your muscles don’t work as hard to support you. This is because you’re lying down and, in turn, can mean that when you get up, your muscles tighten and struggle to support your spine and neck, which can result in a banging headache.

Another reason that your head may hurt when you lay down on your pillow? Ongoing mental health issues. If you struggle with:

they could be contributing to both your sleep issues and headaches, too.

One surefire way of knowing that the position you’re sleeping in isn’t good for you? If you keep tossing and turning. This is often an indicator that you’re in a disruptive position, shares the expert, as the physical discomfort wakes you up.

What’s the best sleeping position to avoid headaches?

Good question. “Sleeping on your back or on your side is better for the alignment of your spine,”  the Doctor shares.

The best position you can adopt is called the corpse – just imagine you’re lying in a coffin (cheery visual, we know). Lying on your back is the best position to sleep in as it keeps your spine straight and blood flowing.

If you’re a snorer, this position might be tricky for you, so consider sleeping on your side as straight as you possibly can, and don’t elevate your neck too much.

Can the type of pillow I use cause headaches? 

Oh yep. The type of pillow you opt for can also contribute to your pain shares the Doctor.

“Pillows are intended to help with the alignment of your head and neck and relax the neck muscles when you are asleep,” she explains.

Do this: Make sure you’re supporting your head and neck in a neutral position. “Pillows minimise any stresses or pressure on your neck that lead to compromise of pain-sensitive structures, which in turn cause waking symptoms such as neck pain and stiffness, headaches, shoulder or arm pain,” she shares.

Our guides to the best mattresses (opens in new tab), weighted blankets (opens in new tab), and sleep masks (opens in new tab) may help.

Is there such thing as a migraine sleep position? 

These headaches are specifically tension headaches, according to Doctor Adegoke. “Commonly known as a stress headache, this type of headache causes a band-like tightness and pressure across the forehead, temples, and back of your head,” she explains. (Read our guide to chronic stress, here). 

It can also cause tenderness in the scalp neck and shoulder muscles. If you struggle with migraines, as above, make sure you’re sleeping on your back or on your side. They’re the best positions, generally speaking, to support your body through sleep sans pain.

Which sleeping positions should I be wary of? 

If you’re frequently getting headaches after sleeping, these are the sleep positions you need to be mindful of—and avoid where possible.

1. The foetal position

It might feel instinctual, but curling up in a ball like this forces your shoulders forward, which can cause a lot of tension in your neck. Once your neck tenses and locks, you can expect a filthy headache in the AM.

2. Sleeping on your stomach

This position makes you twist your head and neck in an unnatural way so, again, brings on tension.

3. Putting your arm over your head

Putting your arm over your head can cut off circulation and put pressure around your nerves, disrupting blood flow.

How do I prevent myself from getting morning headaches?

1. Identify and control headache triggers

Sleep posture isn’t the only thing that causes morning headaches, shares Doctor Adegoke. “The most important thing to do is to identify the cause, treat it, and then avoid any triggers,” she explains.

Other triggers include:

  • Jaw clenching
  • Grinding teeth
  • Alcohol
  • High caffeine intake
  • Some medications
  • Excess screen time.

2. Practice good sleep hygiene

Not sure what that means? Good sleep hygiene is making sure that your sleep habits are helping, not preventing you, from drifting off.

Try the following, advises the doctor:

  • Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day
  • Avoid napping during the day
  • Avoid drugs, alcohol, and large meals before bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine for six hours pre-bedtime
  • Exercise regularly: aim for 30 minutes a day, no later than 5 hours before bed
  • Avoid screen time 90 minutes before bed
  • Make the bedroom a place for sleeping only (sunrise alarm clocks (opens in new tab) will help)
  • If you can’t sleep, get up and go to another room.

3. Try changing your pillow or position

“While sleeping positions are often set and difficult to change, sleeping on your side or back is better than sleeping on your stomach,” explains the doctor.

Do this: Avoid hard or stiff pillows. If you sleep on your stomach, try a flatter pillow. If sleep on your back, choose an ergonomic pillow that supports the natural curve of your neck, she advises.

4. Try occasional pain relief

Not so keen on medicating? Know that, sometimes, it can help – when relied on in moderation.

“Simple over-the-counter medication, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, when used occasionally, can help with headaches,” explains Doctor Adegoke.

Do note here, though, that continuous use of painkillers – that’s any longer than two weeks – can be counter-intuitive. This leads us to the next point nicely…

6. Know when to seek help

If your headaches aren’t settling with the simple measures outlined above, do seek help from a specialist, the expert recommends. “They can take a look through your medical history to try to understand the cause of your headaches, as well as suggesting other treatments,” shares the doctor.

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