Back and Neck Stiffness In The Morning

Many of us find ourselves waking up in the morning feeling VERY stiff. It sometimes takes quite an effort to roll out of bed and those first few steps might be stiff and sometimes even painful. Why is this happening? Is it the bed or pillow? Is it age? Is it the way I sleep? Am I developing back or neck problems?

I am here today to give you some physiotherapy insight on what might be the cause.

Understanding How Things Work – Barrhaven

The spine (neck and back) is made out of alternative series of bone and disk (Bone-Disk-Bone-Disk-Bone-Disk…) (see picture below). The disks are like jelly doughnuts: tough on the outside, which helps contain the more liquid jelly on the inside. The disks allow better mobility in the back and neck to allow us to bend in different directions.

Throughout the night, as we are lying flat, the disks have no gravity putting pressure on it. It therefore gets filled with more water content. In the morning, the disk are bulkier and stiffer because of the water it had absorbed overnight. It is found that they can actually be up to 300% stiffer in the morning. This is also why you are taller in the morning compared to night time. You might find that you might not be able to bend as much easily in the morning, but that is all normal as long as there is no pain or discomfort associated with the stiffness.

low back

What Could Be Abnormal

First of all, NEVER attribute your discomfort to age. It is NOT normal to have pain or discomfort regardless of age. If you find that you are experiencing abnormal stiffness that you have not experienced before, or have actual pain/ache associated with the stiffness, then you should look at the following.

Sleeping Position

I have recently wrote an article about what are the best sleep setups, depending on which positions you sleep in. You can find out more about it in that article: Read more about sleeping position.


I usually recommend most of my patients in my Barrhaven clinic to have a mattress be more on the firmer side. Although a stiffer mattress is not for everyone, it is better for a BIG majority of the population. If you have a very old mattress or have dug a crater in yours, it is time to invest in a newer firmer one. You should be able to freely turn in bed without interference from the mattress or feeling that you need to be climbing uphill!

Still Not Helping?

physiotherapy questions

If you have tried to adjust everything mentioned above, and still find yourself waking up abnormally stiff or painful in the morning, you should see a physiotherapist and get your back or neck assessed. Abnormal stiffness in the morning could be a precursor to developing a back or neck problem. Your physiotherapist will be able to find out what is the cause of your discomfort, and prevent any full blown back or neck problem from developing.

Here are some related articles you might be interested in:

Understanding Back Pain

There are many reasons why someone might have back pain. I will be listing below 2 more common scenarios for Low Back Pain and what might be causing them. These 2 presentations of low back issues make up a BIG percentage of low back patients in my physiotherapy practice. If you have back pain, more likely than not, you are in one of these 2 types. Read More…

Tips to Reduce Back Pain

Depending on what type of back pain you have, I have listed some trips to help reduce your back pain. Read More…

Is The Pain In My Leg(s) Coming From My Back?

Did you know that one can have pain in any part of the leg(s) referred from the low back, without necessarily having noticeable discomfort in their low back? Read More…

About the Author:

Lily ZhangLily Zhang is a registered physiotherapist with training specializing in the McKenzie Method.  She graduated from McGill University and is currently working in Barrhaven (Ottawa, ON). She has over 10 years of professional training/clinical experience in orthopedic physiotherapy.  You can Follow Her Blog @PhysioVive Facebook Page.

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