Why Is My Back Stiff When I Wake Up?
--- Causes and Top 7 Natural Remedies
By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
It’s a mystery. Why do you feel full of life and energy, largely pain-free and happy during the day but when you wake up, supposedly rested after a full night's sleep you suffer from horrible back stiffness?
Why does your back get so stiff when you should be relaxed? Waking up with a sore, stiff back is a common complaint.
Thousands of people dread what should be a restful, rejuvenating night because they know they will wake up with a painful or stiff back. Why does this happen? A stiff back in the morning could be the result of a number of conditions or sleep issues. Take a closer look at morning back stiffness and what you can do about it.
What Are the Causes of a Stiff Back in the Morning?
It is often very difficult to pinpoint the cause of back pain as your back is such a complex structure comprised of a complicated network of joints, nerves, bones, and muscles.
If you fall over and injure your back you know why the problem began, but in many cases back stiffness is not caused by serious damage or major disease.
Back stiffness and pain can often develop for no apparent reason – you just wake up one morning with a stiff back, and no idea how it happened.
Basic causes of morning back stiffness include a lack of physical activity during the day to lubricate the joints, and a buildup of toxins that are not cleared by the effective movement of blood around the body.
On the other hand, too much strenuous exercise or repetitive movements can result in stiffness developing overnight.
Being overweight also causes problems as the extra weight puts strain on your joints and muscles, even when you are asleep. Sleeping in a bad position reduces blood flow to the muscles, which results in a build-up of lactic acid. Getting too cold at night, and not sleeping properly, causes the muscles to stiffen and seize up.
Who Gets a Stiff Back in the Mornings?
Morning back pain can happen to anyone but there are factors that increase your risk. But if you smoke and are overweight, you have a greater chance of waking up with a stiff back.
Being pregnant puts extra strain on the back muscles and also increases the likelihood of a poor night’s sleep.
Moreover, if you are stressed or depressed, you may find you are waking up often with a stiff back.
Certain medical conditions can cause general pain and stiffness in the morning, including in the back, so you should visit the doctor to rule out any serious complaint. For example, morning stiffness is a sign of rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other inflammatory conditions.
But often back stiffness in the morning occurs without any linked medical condition. We looked at the scientific evidence to see how you can ease the stiffness and wake up feeling refreshed – not doubled over with pain – in the mornings.
1. How to Ease Your Stiff Back in Bed
If your bed and your sleeping position are not supportive, you are setting yourself up for a stiff back in the morning.
Remember that you spend about a third of your life in bed.
So, if you've got a stiff back in the morning, start by checking your mattress.
Firmer mattresses are better than soft. If your mattress is more than five years old, it is probably time to replace it.
Don’t sleep on your stomach as this puts strain on the joints in your back as you need to rotate your neck.
Instead, sleep on your side or on your back. You can use pillows for support – place pillows between your knees to create a better alignment.
When you do wake up, easy does it. Wake up slowly and gently stretch while in bed to give your back a chance to warm up and minimize the risk of injury.
2. A Stiff Back in the Morning Can Be a Sign of Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition characterized by tender spots on different parts of the body, general fatigue, disturbed sleep and stiffness in the morning – including back stiffness.
Often the stiffness will last several hours throughout the day.
Some experts believe that fibromyalgia may be caused by poor sleep and incomplete relaxation of the muscles at night.
Fibromyalgia is not easily treated but there are promising remedies. In one 1994 study by the Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas capsaicin – the component that makes peppers hot – helped treat fibromyalgia pain and morning stiffness.
Participants in the study used a capsaicin cream or a placebo cream. Those using the real cream reported far less pain, tenderness and stiffness in their tender points.
3. Use Omega- 3s to Relieve a Stiff Back in the Morning Caused by Rheumatoid Arthritis
Morning stiffness is a common and particularly devastating symptom in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, according to experts in a 1999 study from the Ontario Cancer Institute/Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto, Canada.
In this study morning stiffness was characterized as “slowness or difficulty moving the joints when getting out of bed or after staying in one position too long, which involves both sides of the body and gets better with movement.”
Fish oil may help the back stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
In many studies, including a 1997 report from the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Australia, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil significantly reduces morning stiffness and other pain symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Fish oil may even help sufferers lower their does of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication.
It's always preferable to get your omega-3's from real food. Try adding salmon, tuna, sardines or halibut to your diet.
4. White Willow as a Treatment for a Stiff Back in the Morning
Willow bark is a traditional treatment for pain and has been used in China since 500BC.
The substance salicin which is found in white willow bark is similar to aspirin, and white willow may be useful for helping treat morning pain and stiffness in the back.
A 2000 study from the Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel looked at 210 people with chronic lower back pain, giving them one of two doses of white willow bar extract.
What the scientists discovered was remarkable. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of those taking a higher dose of willow bark extract were pain-free at least for the last five days of the trial.
Be careful with white willow as it should not be mixed with standard anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen.
5. Do Yoga to Cure a Stiff Back in the Morning
Yoga has also been specifically shown to have a positive effect on back pain.
A 2012 study by the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation (SVYASA) in Bengaluru, India showed a comprehensive yoga program improved pain symptoms in people with lower back pain compared to physical therapy.
Yoga can help relax the muscles before bed, leading to lower levels of stiffness in the morning.
6. Is Back Stiffness in the Morning Caused by Lumbar Disc Degeneration?
According to a 2012 study from University Medical Center Rotterdam, morning stiffness in the back is associated with lumbar disc degeneration.
If you are regularly waking up with a stiff back it is worth visiting a chiropractor to check the discs in your spine.
In a 2006 study from the Università di Roma La Sapienza in Rome, Italy, chiropractic manipulation was much more effective at relieving symptoms of back pain than sham treatment.
7. Sciatica Can Cause a Stiff Back in the Morning
Sciatica is an irritation of the major nerve, the sciatic nerve, which runs down the back of each thigh – it can be caused by lumbar disc degeneration, or any condition that puts pressure on the sciatic nerve. It can also cause a stiff back on waking up.
Acupuncture has shown promise for treating sciatica according to a 1997 study from East Finchley Clinic, London, England. Resting in bed is not helpful, according to studies like a 1997 report from Glasgow Nuffield Hospital in the UK, and can be potentially harmful.