Is Your Pillow Causing Your Neck Pain?

We had a patient come in this week who sleeps on two smaller pillows. She was commenting that she always prefers one specific pillow beneath her head and that this week when she fell asleep on the other pillow, she woke up with terrible neck pain and stiffness. Coincidence? Absolutely not. We know it’s quite a common occurrence – especially when staying away from home, so today our physiotherapy in Toowoomba team is talking about how your pillow affects your neck and back while you sleep – and giving you our top tips for choosing the right pillow to give you a comfortable, pain-free sleep.

Before we start…

Before we dive in, it’s important to note that while pillow and mattress shops would love for you to believe otherwise, there is no one single perfect pillow for everyone. Not only do we have different preferences when it comes to depth, softness and what feels comfortable to us, but we have differences in our musculature and anatomy that makes the same pillow feel very different to multiple people. Just ask your spouse!

With this said, there are definitely guidelines that we follow and recommend – so let’s get started!

Your head position

Your pillow should aim to keep your head in a relatively neutral position, meaning that it doesn’t curve or strain your spine and neck. The pillow should sit squarely on the shoulder, recreating a similar head position to what it’d be if we were standing.

So what does this mean for your pillow you choose?

Well, that depends on your go-to sleeping position. If you sleep on your side, you may benefit from a contoured or thicker pillow to support you in the position between your head and your shoulders. If you sleep on your back, you’ll want to avoid a pillow that is too thick so it doesn’t keep your head pushed forwards, straining your neck. Sleep on your front? While we can’t say that we recommend this position because of the extreme rotation of your head, if you always end up in this position for long periods during the night, then a soft and thin pillow may be most comfortable for you and the position of your head.

If you’re anything like us and have a divided combination of sleeping positions, a medium-thickness pillow will be your best bet – and if that’s what you have now and you’ve started developing stiffness or pain in your neck when you wake, that’s the sign you need to change it up.

What are the signs that your pillow is causing your neck pain?

Waking up with a sore and stiff neck is 100% the #1 sign. Waking up multiple times during the night with a twinge in your neck is another. You may also notice that you’re getting more headaches, or having difficulty falling asleep.

I’ve used the same pillow for years – why have I only developed pain now?

Great question. The short answer is that pillows have lifespans, and yours has been exceeded. The exact lifespan of your pillow is often determined by the material that your pillow is made from. While some materials last longer than others – whether your pillow feather, down, memory foam, polyester, latex or whatever else – the material will wear down over time and need replacing. And very honestly, delaying replacing your pillow is a sure way for your discomfort and pain to worsen – so don’t put it off.

How many pillows are best?

However many you need to keep your spine and head in a neutral position. If that’s two thinner pillows – great. If it’s one thicker pillow – also great. Try not to exceed that as your likelihood of curving your spine is much higher. We’ve also never seen anyone whose spinal and head position doesn’t benefit from a pillow when sleeping on a regular flat mattress.

Are memory foam pillows really ‘superior’?

According to science? No. Studies have not shown that memory pillows are superior, and when a small-scare study compared memory foam pillows and feather pillows with an orthopaedic pillow, the orthopaedic pillow (which was designed as per orthopaedic guidelines to ensure the right supportive of the cervical spine curvature) proved superior in the spine position, pillow temperature and perceived pillow comfort by the study participants.

While memory foam pillows can help better evenly distribute the pressure from your head, and its shape may help add support in certain areas, the scientific evidence isn’t there. With that being said – if you’re looking to invest in a good-quality memory foam pillow, take advantage of the trial periods that many manufacturers now offer.

I’ve tried a number of different pillows and nothing feels comfortable – what now?

If this is the case, then it’s likely that the pillow isn’t the culprit of your neck pain – though it may be a contributing factor. Relieving neck pain is one of our specialities, so book your appointment with our experienced physio team online here or call us on (07) 4638 3022.

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