3 Natural Ways to Get Sleep Despite Neck or Back Pain

If you're tossing and turning all night due to neck and/or back pain, there may be a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that could help.

While little research has been done on holistic treatments that work for both pain and insomnia, some promise does loom on the horizon. Alternative therapies such as herbal teas, supplements, and mindfulness may have great results to help you get a good night's sleep, despite your neck and back pain. Just be sure to chat with your physician first before trying any new holistic therapies.

Valerian for a Better Night's Sleep When You Have Chronic Pain

Valerian is an age-old herb that has been used for insomnia since the 2nd century when the physician Galen prescribed it for his sleepless patients. Along with insomnia, valerian is also used to quell anxiety, headaches, depression, among conditions, according to The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

Valerian root can be taken as a tea. It is also available as a liquid extract and in tablet and in capsule form. It is likely safe to take for a short period of time (four to six weeks). Valerian’s long-term safety profile is not known.

Potential side effects are likely to be mild, according to NCCIH and include being tired the morning after you use it, getting headaches, dizziness, and/or an upset stomach.

Although valerian is commonly touted as a restless sleep remedy, NCCIH reports that not enough high-quality evidence, i.e. evidence arrived at by solidly designed studies, is available to confirm that it is truly helpful for this (or any other) problem. But they don’t rule it out, either.

So far, NCCIH reports, the studies that either have been done or are being done currently on valerian focus on its effect on the sleep of healthy older adult, and on people with Parkinson’s disease. Other studies look at valerian's potential (along with the potential of other herbs) to relieve symptoms of menopause.

Melatonin Supplements When Pain Interrupts Your Sleep

Melatonin is a hormone that plays a role in sleep with the amount of melatonin in your brain being higher at night and lower in the morning. 

Therefore, the time of day you take melatonin likely makes a difference as to any effects you may experience for doing so. For example, keeping the lights on at night may block melatonin production, which, in turn, may hinder your efforts to fall asleep. In short, melatonin affects your biological clock.

NCCIH reports that a number of studies looking at the effects of melatonin on sleep—particularly in instances of jet lag or the sleep schedule of night shift workers—show that this supplement may be useful. That said, the studies on insomnia, in particular, yielded mixed results. 

The NCCIH says most supplements have not been tested on pregnant women, nursing mothers or children. If this is you or your child and you’re considering melatonin, it’s best to talk to your doctor first. (A few melatonin studies have been done on children but they were small and did not evaluate long-term effects, NCCIH says.)

In fact, for all populations, while melatonin may possibly be safe for short-term use, its long-term safety profile has not been studied.

As a supplement, melatonin is not a substitute for sleep medicine when you need it. If your sleeplessness persists and/or you have other symptoms, speak with your doctor. Along the same lines, melatonin is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but in a less strict way than prescription or over-the-counter medications.

Melatonin could possibly interact with other medications you may take, or it might increase your risk for health issues related to undergoing surgery, should you have that planned. It's best to talk to your physician before starting any new supplement regimen, including melatonin.

Mindfulness Meditation for Sleep and Pain

A winding-down routine at the day’s end may help you fall asleep and remain so for the rest of the night. According to NCCIH, evidence from studies on this topic suggests a place for relaxation techniques as part of an overall strategy to improve sleep does exist. Ideally, you’d combine your relaxation routine with other sleep hygiene techniques such as keeping a regular sleeping schedule, sleeping in a quiet, dark room, and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, heavy meals, alcohol, and exercise soon before bedtime.

A 2011 study by Gross, et al. published in Explore (NY) compared sleep medication with mindfulness-based stress reduction and found mindfulness-based stress reduction to be a viable alternative to the drugs. On the topic of recovery from poor sleep, the authors comment: “Although not statistically significant, it is interesting to note that the rates of recovery from poor sleep ... were considerably higher following mindfulness-based stress reduction than pharmacology at 8-weeks and at 5-months.”

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that teaches participants techniques of meditation, body scanning, and yoga. It is used for a variety of ailments including chronic pain as well as insomnia.

Other Types of Relaxation Techniques

Other relaxation techniques have been studied as well but with mixed and inconclusive results. These include biofeedback, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, and more. This is not to say such practices wouldn’t be valuable in the quest for a good night’s sleep, but so far, the rigors of scientific scrutiny do not bear them out as treatments.

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  • National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Melatonin: What You Need to Know. Updated: October 2019.

  • National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Valerian. Updated September 2016. 

  • Gross, C.R., Kreitzer, M.J., Reilly-Spong, M., Wall, M., Winbush, N.Y., Patterson, R., Mahowald, M., Cramer-Bornemann, M., Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Versus Pharmacotherapy for Chronic Primary Insomnia: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. Explore (NY). 2011 ; 7(2): 76–87.
  • NIH. Sleep Disorders. National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health website. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/sleep Last Updated: Oct 2015.