Pillows – Getting the right neck support

Getting a good night sleep is vital to our over all health and well being. How much sleep and what quality of sleep a patient gets is something I am very interested to know and help with as an osteopath. Pain can cause broken sleep and insomnia as we struggle to find a comfortable position and having not enough sleep can make the pain worse the next day. It can be a vicious circle.

Sleeping with the wrong pillow can aggravate neck, back and shoulder pain and in some cases may well be the cause of it. The right pillow can help with a more restful and healing night’s sleep and can have profound benefits on the curve and alignment of the neck when used properly over a period of time.

Finding the right pillow for you can involve trying more then one, as every one is different, but is worth exploring as we spend a third of our life sleeping and using one. This post hopefully can cover the basic points to be aware of when looking for a suitable one.

Ultimately you want to look for a pillow that cradles your head and support your neck without distorting their normal posture and alignment. Too little or no pillow  places the unsupported neck under strain all night long, too many pillows or too firm a pillow can push the neck up and pinch joints together.

Your pillow needs to be soft enough to fit to the shape of your head and still fill in the space between your bed and your neck. Your head is bigger than your neck so supporting both without distorting the position of your neck is key, as you can see in the last illustration below, the position of the head is held in a good neutral position with the pillow supporting the neck which is horizontal to the bed.

Sleeping on your side and your back require different support. The head needs to be supported approximately two inches higher in the side position than in the back position. Often people will try to make this correction by putting their hand or arm under the pillow when they roll over on their side.

A less then ideal position where the neck is unsupported leaving the ligaments, muscles and tendons overly flexed or extended all night, every night, can lead to strain of muscles and uneven pressure on joints. This can cause inflammation and pain the next morning aggravating any pre-existing condition and delaying tissue healing in the neck.

Types of Pillow on the Market

Memory foam pillow.

These pillows are polyurethane with additional chemicals increasing the viscosity and density and are designed to mold to the shape of your head and neck. More expensive higher density memory foam softens in reaction to body heat over a period of minutes, the less expensive types react to pressure within seconds.

Cervical pillows

This pillow is designed to give support on the nape of the neck allowing for a horizontal position all night long.  Available in various materials and shapes, these pillows add extra cushioning in the lower portion of the pillow.

Water pillows

These pillows use water to create your own customized level of density and support.

Cool pillows

Advertised as useful for hot flushes and night sweats, these pillows include a filling of tiny “beads” that absorb and whisk away head heat, leaving the part of the pillow that touches your face cool.