According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one-third of the adults in the United States do not get enough sleep (3). The causes of poor sleep quality are many, but one of the most common is muscle pain. When muscles tighten up during sleep it can be difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. There are several possible causes of muscle tightness during sleep, and some simple solutions that could help. Let’s explore some of the most common reasons why your muscles might tighten up at night and what you can do to find relief.
Why Your Muscles Tighten Up When You Sleep
There are a few different reasons why your muscles might tighten up when you sleep, including:
Poor Sleep Position
Ideally, you should sleep in a neutral position. This means that your head, neck, and spine should be in alignment. However, many people sleep in a position that puts strain on their muscles.
For example, if you sleep on your stomach, you may end up arching your back and straining your neck and shoulder muscles. Sleeping on your side can also cause muscle pain, especially if you curl up in a fetal position (5).
Sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees can help take the strain off your muscles and improve sleep quality.
Stress And Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are common causes of muscle tension (14).
When you’re stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, which means that your muscles tense up in preparation for action. This can make it difficult to relax at night and can lead to muscle pain (14).
If you’re struggling with stress or anxiety, finding ways to relax before bed can help ease muscle tension and improve sleep quality.
Modern life is increasingly sedentary, and this can lead to tight, sore muscles. If you spend most of your day sitting, your muscles may tighten up from lack of use (16). Exercising regularly can help keep your muscles loose and prevent pain.
Dehydration can cause muscle cramping, which can be painful and disruptive to sleep (7). Make sure you’re drinking enough water during the day, and avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed.
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Exercise is good for you, but too much exercise can lead to muscle pain. If you’ve been working out hard, your muscles may be sore and tight. Resting for a day or two can help ease the pain and allow your muscles to recover.
If you work a physically taxing job, you may also be susceptible to muscle pain. If your job requires you to lift heavy objects or stand for long periods of time, your muscles may be strained. Taking breaks and using proper lifting techniques can help prevent pain.
Abnormal Nerve Activity
The nerve endings in your muscles send signals to your brain that tell your muscles when to contract and relax.
Sometimes these signals can get mixed up, causing your muscles to spasm or cramp (10). This is often seen in people with conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (17).
Naturally Short Tendons
Tendons are the tissues that connect your muscles to your bones. Some people are born with naturally short tendons, which can make their muscles feel tighter than normal. This condition is called “tendinosis” (15).
Why Do My Back Muscles Tighten Up When I Sleep?
Back stiffness and pain are common complaints that may be as a result of:
As your baby grows, your abdominal muscles stretch and loosen to accommodate the new life growing inside of you. This can cause your back muscles to work overtime to support your changing body (13).
Bad Sleeping Surface
A bad mattress can cause your back muscles to tighten up during sleep. If you don’t have proper support, your spine can become misaligned, causing pain (4). Investing in a good mattress and pillow can help alleviate back pain.
Carrying extra weight can put strain on your back muscles and lead to pain. Losing weight may reduce back pain and improve sleep quality (8).
Spinal stenosis is a condition that causes the spinal canal to narrow, putting pressure on the nerves. This can cause pain and muscle tightness (1). Treatment for spinal stenosis may include surgery.
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Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that can cause pain and stiffness. Treatment for osteoarthritis may include pain medication, physical therapy, and weight loss (12).
A disc herniation occurs when the soft tissue inside a vertebra ruptures. This can cause pain, numbness, and muscle tightness. Treatment for a disc herniation may include pain medication, physical therapy, and surgery (9).
Sciatica is a condition that causes pain in the lower back and legs. It is often caused by a herniated disc. Treatment for sciatica may include pain medication, physical therapy, and surgery (2).
How To Ease Muscle Tightness At Night
There are several things you can do to ease muscle tightness at night and improve sleep quality.
Change Your Sleeping Position
First, make sure you’re sleeping in a comfortable position. If you’re used to sleeping on your stomach or side, it may take some time to adjust to sleeping on your back. However, this is the best position for preventing muscle pain.
Put a pillow under your knees to keep your spine in alignment and ease tension in your lower back and legs.
Use A Body Pillow
If you find it difficult to adjust to sleeping on your back, try using a body pillow. This will support your spine and keep your muscles in alignment.
Try Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, and deep breathing can help ease stress and anxiety. These activities can also help relax your muscles and improve sleep quality.
Exercise is important for keeping your muscles loose and preventing pain. However, it’s important to avoid exercising too close to bedtime. This can make it difficult to fall asleep.
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Stretch Before Bed
Stretching before bed can help ease muscle tension and improve sleep quality. Try stretches like the child’s pose, neck rolls, and shoulder shrugs.
Here’s a breakdown of each exercise, complete with steps and instructions:
- Start on your hands and knees.
- Bring your big toes together and sit back on your heels.
- Then, stretch your arms out in front of you and rest your forehead on the floor.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Start by sitting up tall with your shoulders relaxed.
- Then, drop your right ear to your right shoulder and slowly roll your head forward.
- Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
- Do 5-10 repetitions on each side.
- Start by standing up tall with your shoulders relaxed.
- Then, lift your shoulders up to your ears and hold for 5 seconds.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
- Do 10-15 repetitions.
- Start by sitting up tall with your shoulders relaxed.
- Then, take a deep breath in through your nose and count to four.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth and count to four.
- Repeat this breath for 1-2 minutes.
Get A Massage
A massage can help relax your muscles and improve sleep quality. If you don’t have time for a professional massage, try using a foam roller or tennis ball to massage your own muscles.
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Apply Heat Or Cold
Applying heat or cold to your muscles can help ease pain and improve sleep quality. Try taking a hot bath or using a heating pad before bed.
Drink Plenty Of Water
Dehydration can cause muscle cramping, so it’s important to drink plenty of water during the day (7). Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, as these can dehydrate you and make muscle pain worse.
Eat Magnesium-Rich Foods
Magnesium is a mineral that’s important for muscle health. Eating foods rich in magnesium can help prevent muscle pain (6). Good sources of magnesium include dark leafy greens, nuts, and seeds.
Take A Vitamin D Supplement
Vitamin D is important for muscle health (18). If you don’t get enough vitamin D, you may be more likely to experience muscle pain. Taking a supplement can help prevent deficiency and improve sleep quality.
Do Mild Exercises
Mild exercises like walking or gentle stretching can help ease muscle tension and improve sleep quality. Avoid strenuous exercise close to bedtime, as this can make it difficult for you to fall asleep.
Establish A Sleep Routine
Having a sleep routine goes a long way in improving sleep quality. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
Avoid watching television or working on the computer in bed. Create a relaxing environment in your bedroom by using comfortable sheets and eliminating noise and light pollution.
Identify And Treat Underlying Conditions
If you’re dealing with chronic muscle pain, there may be an underlying condition causing it. conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis, and Thyroid disease can all cause muscle pain (11). Talk to your doctor about these conditions and treatment options. Your doctor can also provide other tips for managing pain.
The Bottom Line
There are many possible causes of muscle pain when sleeping. However, there are also many treatments and solutions available. Try stretching before bed, getting a massage, or applying heat or cold to your muscles.
You can also improve sleep quality by drinking plenty of water, eating magnesium-rich foods, and taking a vitamin D supplement.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Current concepts and recent advances in understanding and managing lumbar spine stenosis (2019, nih.gov)
- Diagnosis and treatment of sciatica (2007, nih.gov)
- Do You Get Enough Sleep? (2021, cdc.gov)
- Effect of prescribed sleep surfaces on back pain and sleep quality in patients diagnosed with low back and shoulder pain (2010, pubmed.gov)
- Effect of sleep posture on neck muscle activity (2017, nih.gov)
- Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Muscle Soreness and Performance (pubmed.gov)
- Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps (2005, nih.gov)
- Low Back Pain and Obesity (2015, nih.gov)
- Lumbar Disc Herniation (2017, nih.gov)
- Muscle Cramps (n.d., nih.gov)
- Muscle pain (2021, mayoclinic.org)
- Osteoarthritis (2021, mayoclinic.org)
- Pregnancy and low back pain (2008, nih.gov)
- Stress effects on the body (2018, apa.org)
- Tendinosis (2022, nih.gov)
- The Relationship Between Sedentary Behavior, Back Pain, and Psychosocial Correlates Among University Employees (2019, nih.gov)
- Understanding Muscle Dysfunction in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (2016, nih.gov)
- Vitamin D and Muscle Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trials (2021, nih.gov)