Pain-free Living Blog with Julie Donnelly

Why sleeping causes neck pain, tinnitus, and dizziness

If you wake up with neck pain, or you suffer from ringing in your ears, dizziness, or ear pain, there is a good possibility that it may be caused by the way you are sleeping.

One muscle that causes all of these symptoms is called sternocleidomastoid (SCM for short). Your SCM originates on your collarbone and inserts into the bone behind your ear, and when it contracts you turn your head to the opposite side. However, if the muscle is tight (for example, when you’ve held your head turned toward one side for an extended period of time) and then you bring your head back so you are facing forward, the tight muscle will pull on the bone behind your ear and cause havoc.

The symptoms for a tight SCM are tinnitus (ringing in the ear), dizziness, loss of equilibrium, ear pain, headaches, pain in the eye and around the skull, pain at the top of the head, and even pain in the throat. Amazing! What’s even more amazing is that it’s rare that this muscle is considered when a medical professional is searching for the cause of your symptoms.

I’ve found that people who have chronic issues with their SCM often sleep on their side and their pillow is either too thin (causing their head to tilt toward the mattress all night) or too thick (causing their head to tilt up toward the ceiling all night). Either case will cause neck pain that won’t go away until the pillow situation is resolved.

In the case of SCM pain, not only is their head tilted up or down, but they also rotate it at the same time. It’s worthwhile to look at how you’re sleeping and adjust it so your head, neck, and spine are in a straight line. If you sleep on your back, your head should be on the mattress (not propped up with a pillow) and you should have a tiny support (like a folded washcloth) under your neck, or you can have a wedge pillow that starts at your mid-back and gently raises your entire trunk and head up while still allowing your head and back to be in a straight line. And, if you sleep on your stomach, this is the one position that is so bad that it behooves you to force yourself to change your position. If you do sleep that way, let me know and I’ll give you some suggestions that work to change your habit of sleeping. It takes time and energy, but the results are worth the effort.

Wishing you well,

P.S. Treat Yourself to Pain Free Living will show you how you can successfully self-treat your SCM. Details are demonstrated in pictures and clear text. Read how by going to

Posted by Julie Donnelly in Julie's Notes and tagged , , , , , .


9 Responses to Why sleeping causes neck pain, tinnitus, and dizziness

  1. Joanna: June 23, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Hiya, I always seem to end up sleeping on my stomach with my neck twisted uncomfortably to one side and, as it happens, I suffer from tinnitus in my left ear which is usually the side my head ends up facing too. Throughout the day my tinnitus disappears but it comes back during the night or when I am tired. I also work at a computer all day :( Any tips to help me?

  2. Julie Donnelly: June 30, 2014 at 4:03 am

    Hi Joanna. The problem is your sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle is in spasm and has shortened due to muscle memory. While the #1 thing to do is to stop sleeping on your stomach, I know this will take some time and effort and you need a faster solution. Do you already have my book, Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living? The treatment for the SCM is in that book. The good part about that book is it has treatments for other muscles that are being held in the contracted state while you are sleeping. The odds are you are also straining the muscles that go all the way down your back, and since your arms are probably lifted up over your head, your shoulders are also being strained.

    I believe I wrote a blog a long time ago about stomach sleeping and some hints on how to soften the strain. Keep an eye on the blog and I’ll search for it, update it, and re-post it. If I can’t find it, I’ll write it again.

  3. peanutflower: July 13, 2014 at 1:41 am

    OMG. a Eureka moment. The stabbing pain in the top of my head and above one eye drove me to spend several hours today searching for something. I have tinnitus that gets worse when I lay down, recurrent stabbing sharp pain in back of head, top of head on one side and on the same side above eye, sore throat, intermittent “fuzziness in my brain” is the only way I can describe it –a feeling like there is pressure on my ears like in an airplane or something. the more stressed I get the worse all of this is as I guess my shoulders inch upwards. I have dealt with tinnitus for several years and just accepted it — of course, the doctor’s reaction is “it’s very hard to diagnose” and then no attempt was made to diagnose it. I have poor posture and head forward position after decades of computer use, but I went to physio and am working very hard at correcting that. When I work out in the gym I get this horrible pain at back base of head — always on same side — and top of head and at top of eye depending on what exercise I do. I think it’s anything where I involuntarily raise my shoulders, this maybe exacerbating this sterno whatsit thing. like disablingly sharp stabbing pain. so I guess I will figure out how my sleeping is making this worse – I htought the sore throat was due to reflux, which I don’t think I have, so I have a longish wedge pillow. I wonder if that is making it worse. I will be heading to physio with this new information. HOPefully this is the source of all of my problems. Honestly, I thought I had some kind of a sinus problem or something. Hopefully this sterno thingy is the problem.

  4. peanutflower: July 13, 2014 at 1:42 am

    haha. what a stream of conscious post.

  5. Julie Donnelly: July 13, 2014 at 2:14 am

    Hi. Every one of the symptoms you are describing are common for spasms in your sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM for short – your physiotherapist will know that term).

    There is so much I’d like to share with you about the pillow you use at night. Basically, if you sleep on your side, your head, neck, and spine need to be in a straight horizontal line. If your head is tilted either up (pillow is too thick) or down (pillow is to thin), or if you turn your head even slightly (looking up or looking down), this will cause the muscles of your neck to stay in the contracted position for hours. The sternocleidomastoid is contracted the entire time you are sleeping, causing muscle memory to shorten the fibers so when you try to turn in the opposite direction the tight muscle will pull on your bones (either your cervical vertebrae, or in the case of the SCM, the mastoid bone). If you do a search of the blogs I’ve written:, you’ll find threads where I have gone into a lot of detail about pillows.

    Did you go to http:// It will explain so much more. BTW, the SCM is well-known for causing tinnitus, but most professionals don’t know how to treat the muscle effectively. The interesting thing is you can treat it yourself in very little time. It’s definitely worthwhile learning as it will need to be done several times a day until the muscle memory reverses and the muscle stays at it’s normal length. I suggest you, or your physiotherapist, also look at the levator scapulae muscle as it is responsible for pulling C1-4 out of alignment.

    Wishing you well,

  6. peanutflower: July 13, 2014 at 4:19 am

    Thank you so much for your reply! I will read more on your site. What relationship can you posit between a sterno-thing and bending down causing a sharp stabbing head pain? That’s when I first noticed it. then it began to occur during workouts — I associated it with a gravity — i.e head lower than something else — issue, but then it went away, and then returned. and went away. and came back… I connect increased tinnitus, head pain, head fuzziness (my cotton wool problem I call it) with increased stress, which I guess means shoulders go up and everything cervical tightens up. I’m not young – turning 55 in two days, but I am in good physical shape, not overweight (any more). I work in front of a computer for many hours a day but have my station set up ergonomically correct, I believe — i.e monitors at the right height, chair not having a tilting seat. I am working very hard to keep good posture, and at my age after a lifetime of poor posture it’s not easy. I hurt my lower back doing a burpee over a year ago — hypextended it trying to show off. I thought perhaps the head pain was as a result of that and underwent IMS but that did nothing. Physiotherapist said my posture and head-forwardness was going to be a big problem if I didn’t take steps to fix it, and so I have been working hard. blah blah blah lol. Anyway, it would be super good if this head problem and tinnitus was connected and I could fix it. going to read more of your blogs now… I am in Victoria, BC, Canada. In case you were interested. It’s current 92 degrees here. we are not used to that…

  7. peanutflower: July 13, 2014 at 4:20 am

    where do I find the info about pillows? I can’t find it on your site.

  8. Julie Donnelly: July 13, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    Hi. I just went to it and it was working. Try again – – maybe it was a cyberspace problem. Julie

  9. Julie Donnelly: July 13, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Hi. It’s on the menu button for the blog. I searched for “pillows” and it came up:

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