Pillow Talk and Neck Pain
I often hear patients talking about continually changing their pillow in an attempt to reduce neck pain. The conversation often centres on how hard it is to find the pillow that works for you. This reminds me of a story about my pillow.
When I was in Grade 2 my older brother and I got new bunk beds, sheets, blankets and pillows. So exciting. This pillow turned out to be my favourite pillow. I even brought it with me to college! At night I could shake it and it would conform to my neck. Many happy sleeps.
However as I grew older I found that this pillow and my neck could not agree. Eventually the neck pain became too difficult to manage and I had to get rid of it. For the next 5 years I struggled to find a good pillow and tried out all sorts of pillows - soft ones, hard ones, down filled, buckwheat filled, water filled down wrapped - you get the idea.
As a chiropractor I had heard of the contoured pillows that some people liked. I did try these and they did nothing for me.
I eventually found that using a combination of a contour pillow and a soft pillow worked best to hold my neck in it’s correct position. Neck pain disappeared. Many happy sleeps.
What is the correct neck position for sleeping?
First you need to understand where your neck wants to be when you sleep. The correct position is to have your neck in what is described as neutral position, as shown by the green checkmark in the image at the right.
When laying on your side you want you the vertebrae in your neck to be straight in the horizontal position. When laying on your back you want to have the natural cervical curve supported. In the neutral position, the muscles in your neck can relax and you sleep comfortably.
The "Special Pillows"
There are special pillows called “Contour pillows” which have been shaped to be the “average” cervical curve for when lying on your back or your side. They look like the image at the left.
Note that on these pillows there is a thick side and a thin side; a sharp curve and a gradual curve.This helps the pillow to needs the neck support needs of a variety of people.
While the contour pillow on its own did not work for me, it lead me to a solution when used with another soft pillow.
I remind people that there isn't any one pillow for all people and that you need to figure what works for you.
How to Find a New Pillow
There are many factors to consider when buying the "correct" pillow. As a starting point you need to look at your neck size. The distance between your neck and shoulder determines how thick your pillow needs to be.
Other Pillow Talk Considerations
Through out life your pillow needs will change - what works when you are twenty will likely not work when you are sixty years of age. This is because when you are young your natural flexibility allows you to deviate out of the neutral position. As we age our flexibility decreases and we have to be more diligent about what position we sleep in and what type of pillow we have.
You also need to consider your head size when looking for a pillow. Or are you a stomach sleeper? This puts your neck in a fully rotated position, strains the structures of the neck, thereby affecting your pillow needs.
If your pillow is too low try putting a bath towel under your pillow to raise it the extra inch or two.
The bottom line is to remember that finding a pillow will be partly trial and error. Stick with your hunt - you will eventually be successful and find your new best pillow!