How to sleep upright without messing up your neck

How to sleep upright without messing up your neck

How to Prevent Neck Pain When You Travel Reading How to sleep upright without messing up your neck 5 minutes Next 6 tips for better sleep on an airplane

Falling asleep sitting in an airline seat or car is about as comfortable as going to the chiropractor, but way worse for your spine.

But when you’re stuck in a seat for hours, it might make the most sense to at least try to sleep while you’re there. The only problem is, sleeping sitting up is a perfect recipe for almost guaranteed neck pain — unless you do it correctly.

Your C-Spine Hates It When You Slump

To understand how to sleep sitting up without completely messing up your neck, you need to understand what’s happening to your spine when you sleep like this.

When you sleep sitting up, your cervical spine, or c-spine, gets its curvature contorted as you slump forward. Instead of having a gentle in and out slope to it, the weight of your head pulls those top vertebrae forward.

When this happens, it’s not just pulling on the muscles and tendons responsible for head and neck control — it’s actually cutting off some of the blood flow to your brain.

“Many physical problems have been associated with forward head posture, including the following: (1) increase of upper cervical curvature (C1–C4); (2) decrease in lower cervical curvature (C5–T1); (3) alteration of the upper thoracic kyphosis; (4) protraction, elevation, and downward rotation of the scapulae; (5) internal rotation of the humeri; and (6) elevation of the first and second ribs…

Flexion of the cervical spine has been studied by many investigators and recently by Dvorak et al. Loss of cervical lordosis occurs in flexion, which causes increased disc pressure and increased electromyographic readings in the cervical musculature. 

However, the most important effect is tension on the cervical spinal cord, brain stem, and nerve roots. Flexion is often found in desk workers and typists" (Harrison 1999 Sitting Biomechanics).

A human head weighs between 10 and 13 pounds. All of that weight creates pressure on the arteries that are woven through your c-spine, which deliver blood to your brain. 

When you slump forward, your spine gets pulled out of alignment, those vertebrae shift into an unnatural position, and while your neck muscles are screaming “uncle”, your arteries are getting smushed. Meanwhile, your discs and nerves are also getting pressure in all of the wrong places.

Not good, right?

How to Sleep Sitting Up

Look, sleeping sitting up is clearly not ideal — but neither are 18-hour flights to Hong Kong, and people do that, too. When push comes to shove and it’s either sleep or literally keel over in the airport, sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you’ve gotta do.

#1 — Sit In a Really Good Chair

You may not get a say in the seat you’re stuck in if you’re traveling, but try to angle for the best you can if you travel a lot. Get a seat with lumbar support to keep your lower back in alignment while you sleep. 

First class seating on airlines typically has a more ergonomic, back-friendly design, and higher-end vehicles are also equipped with lumbar support seating.

#2 — Sit With Great Posture

Even if you’re going to be sleeping, start in the right position — you’d be surprised how little some people move when they’re sleeping in close quarters.

Sit with your feet planted flat on the floor, squarely under your knees. Roll your shoulders back, and align your hips and your knees. Basically, you want your entire body pointing in the same direction to avoid malalignment.

#3 — Don’t Lean Against a Wall or Window

It’s weird to sleep without lying against something, but try to resist the urge, and instead use a really great travel pillow to keep your head propped up. If you lean against something, you may feel great falling asleep, but trust us: you’re going to be sore when you wake up.

#4 — Use a Firm Travel Pillow 

No fluffy junk from the gas station on the way to the airport — get a travel pillow that’s firm, supportive, and actually designed to support your c-spine. This is the only way to sleep sitting up without completely wrecking your neck when you wake up.

#5 — Buckle Up

We shouldn’t have to say it, but we are because it’ll also help you keep your body positioned. Buckle up especially if you plan to sleep sitting up. It’ll keep you from sliding and slumping all over the place in your sleep.

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