Have you ever woken up and immediately known something was wrong? Perhaps you had to sit up first, but when a bad pillow causes neck pain, the results manifest promptly and painfully. While every sleeper and every pillow is different, there are some consistencies for how to avoid pillow-related neck pain. For sweet dreams that don’t end in soreness, here are some things to consider.
The Anatomy of the Neck
The neck is an incredible addition to the body. It supports the weight of a person’s head, an average of 11 lbs, all day, every day. It protects the spinal cord and where it connects to the brain stem, thus allowing every transmission the brain sends out to reach the rest of the body. It includes seven vertebrae (called the cervical vertebrae), several muscles, the critical carotid arteries and jugular veins, the larynx and vocal cords, and the protected spinal cord.
With so many important elements to the neck, it becomes clear why neck pain is a real problem. It is in fact endemic across the United States. In 2016, CDC reports indicated that almost 15% of Americans suffered from some form of neck pain, and more recent statistics cite much higher numbers. Estimates suggest that 22% to 70% of the population will experience neck pain at some point in their lives. This increase tallies with research conducted by the Orthopaedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) that incidents of neck pain are on the rise.
The kinds of pain the neck experiences are broad, including everything from stiffness in the muscles to soreness in the throat. While some causes of neck pain, like disease or accident, are more difficult to avoid, pillow-related neck pain has a clear treatable root.
The Problem with Pillows
If the cause of pillow-related neck pain is the pillows we sleep on, it might be tempting to think that the nation-wide problem could be easily resolved with the perfect pillow. The country’s reliance on marketing could quickly spread the word, and neck pain could disappear overnight. The problem is that the perfect pillow doesn’t exist.
That is to say that no one perfect pillow exists. Because everyone has a different sleeping position pattern and cervical alignment, there is no one-size-fits-all pillow to eradicate pillow-related neck pain. The upside to that fact is that when you find a pillow that provides you with a good night’s sleep, you can cling to it, knowing what pillow features work for you.
Kicking Pillow-Related Neck Pain to the Curb
Pillow-related neck pain arises from misalignment during sleep. A neck that is not supported properly has to work through the night to support the head and shoulders, resulting in strain, soreness, and sleepiness the next morning. The goal of a good pillow is to support the neck and allow it to remain straight, in line with the rest of the spine, throughout the whole night. Finding the perfect pillow for you may take some research and a few tries, but take heart: the right one is out there.
The position in which you most commonly sleep is the most important factor in finding the right pillow for you. Most people favor their sides, backs, or stomachs when they lay down for the evening, and the first two are better for supporting the neck. Sleeping on one’s stomach is tough on the spine’s natural curvature and forces the neck to twist for the full eight hours.
If you have to sleep on your stomach, find a pillow that isn’t very thick. Something around three inches should do it, and you might also consider a pillow for under your thighs to support the rest of your spine. Pillows for back sleepers should be flat enough to support the neck’s natural curvature, while side sleepers, as a general rule, need the most supportive pillow. Find something that fits between the neck and the top of the shoulder without causing the neck to crane. A pillow four- to six-inches thick should do.
A pillow that is too tall or thick will keep the neck flexed during the night, leading to tension and strain the next morning. Your pillow should keep your neck parallel to the mattress if you don’t want to wake up with pillow-related neck pain. Round pillows fit well in the curvature of the neck, especially for those who sleep on their backs. Find something that keeps your neck from craning, crunching, or twisting during the night.
There are many options available for what your pillow is made of, and not all of them are created equal. Despite our long-held love of “down,” feather pillows don’t offer great neck support. Memory foam is designed to conform to the shape of your neck, which can provide great support, but it also tends to trap in body heat. Latex pillows offer similar support without the heat-trapping tendency, but it clearly isn’t a good choice for those with latex allergies.
Again, choosing the perfect pillow is a case of trial and error, but it is crucial if you want to wake up without pillow-related neck pain. For suggestions on supporting your spine, see a chiropractor today.