Waking up with neck pain? It might be your pillow.
Choosing the right pillow can mean the difference between waking up refreshed and feeling great or spending the night tossing and turning followed by a day of neck pain.
As a chiropractor, the sleep habits of my patients play a critical role in their spinal alignment and ultimately their ability to get better. Whenever I have a patient who wakes up with neck pain one of the first things I ask about is their pillow. On some occasions, simply replacing it has made a big difference.
Not all pillows are created equal. But, does it matter?
Pillow preference can be as unique as the person sleeping on it. You can now find pillows made from a variety of materials such as down, cotton, latex, memory foam, buckwheat, and more. These materials do not affect the ability of the pillow to work properly. In this case, it is the size of the pillow that matters most. Its contents simply affect the feel or comfort level the pillow offers.
A pillow that is not sized correctly will place the sleeper’s cervical spine (bones of the neck) into a position of misalignment. Spinal misalignments stress and irritate the sensitive nerves of the neck. This can lead to stiff, achy muscles, neck pain, numbness and tingling in the arms and hands, and headaches.
Determining the right size pillow depends on how you sleep.
Side sleepers (people who primarily sleep on the their left or right side) should select a pillow that is approximately the thickness of their shoulder. To determine if you have the right size, have someone observe you lying in bed (on your side) with the pillow under your head. If your head and spine are in a straight line then it is the right size for you. If your head tilts towards the bed, the pillow is too thin. If it tilts away from the bed, it is too thick.
Back sleepers (people who sleep primarily on their back) should select a thin pillow. To determine if you have the right size, have someone observe you lying in bed (on your back) with the pillow under your head. If your nose is pointing at the ceiling directly above you it is the right size. If your nose points at a part of the ceiling above your feet or towards the wall the pillow is too thick. With back sleepers, it is my opinion that a pillow can not be “too thin”.
Although you may have several pillows ranging from decorative to functional, you should only sleep with one pillow under your head. In addition, you should not sleep on your stomach.
Orthopedic pillows offer specialized support for the neck, upper back, and head. If you are going to purchase an orthopedic pillow, talk to your chiropractor. These pillows come in a range of shapes and sizes and should be fitted correctly. Also, there are many “gimmicky” type pillows that appear to provide specialized support but are no better than a regular foam pillow.
Keep in mind, if you are used to sleeping on a regular pillow, when you switch to an orthopedic style it may take some time before you feel comfortable with it.