Do you often wake up in the mornings with neck or back pain and stiffness? Do you constantly fluff, poke, prod and flip your pillow to help find the most comfortable position to sleep? If you have ever woken up with a sore, stiff, or painful neck, shoulder, or back, you may be suffering from improper sleep positions. So, I have 2 questions for you:
How long have you had that particular pillow?
How do you know if it’s the right fit for your neck?
You weren’t born with a pillow under your head
Throughout your early years of life you slept soundly without pillow. You lay there swaddled in your crib, asleep on your back, on a cushy surface for sure, but without the propped up, forward or laterally flexed neck position that a pillow often forces you into. And then, someone gave you a big bed and a pillow. We all grow accustomed to our necks being in certain positions and are constantly searching for the one pillow to make the best fit.
The thought process behind the modern pillow is intended to help us in our sleep and help us feel comfortable. However, the majority of individuals are searching for that support in fluffy, thick, overly large pillows that have been created to mimic the pillows that evolved from wealth and style. It’s truly rare that a conscious effort is made to work WITH our anatomy and cradle the head and neck in an optimal, neutral position.
Understand, the thick pillow is not so bad if you are a side sleeper but if you sleep on your back then a thick fluffy pillow is basically the antagonist of restful sleep and a healthy spine. This is due to these ‘gigantic mounds of fluff’ pushing our head into various positions of flexion and lateral flexion. These kinds of forced positions break the healthy neutral positions that the head should be in to keep the neck muscles relaxed and happy.
Which way of sleeping is best?
The general consensus is that the best position to sleep in is on your back with your head held in a neutral position. In this position, a small amount of support of the neck is acceptable to help keep the normal curve of the cervical spine, with a minimal amount of cushioned support for the skull. Remember, in this sleeping position, the plane of the face should be running parallel to the ceiling. Here is where our standard pillow fails in its role as a sleep aide. It is generally too large and thick to properly cradle the head and neck without causing major forward bending at the cervical spine eventually resulting in a military or straightened cervical curve.
The second best position is on our side. In this position the pillow should be the thickness of your shoulder with enough firmness from your pillow to support the head and neck strongly in a neutral position, but with enough cushion that your arm isn’t a preferable option. In this sleeping position, your head should be neutral. Often, you may find that your pillow is too large or too small to accommodate a completely neutral head and neck position.
What should you do with your old pillow?
After replacing your pillow with a more accurately sized one, you can recycle your old fluffy pillow by placing it between your legs in order to keep your hips and thighs in a neutral position similar to what they would be if you were standing up.
If you sleep on your stomach, then you should be actively working on sleeping on your side or on your back. Nearly any pillow in this position forces your head to be placed in intensely rotated positions and pushes your spine into unnatural, potentially detrimental curvatures.
If you are a back sleeper who after reading this post, pulled your fluffy hunk of a pillow out from under your head and attempted to lower your head and neck to the bed behind you, only to find that there appears to be an infinite distance between your head and your bedding, then your neck is probably in need of some retraining. Our suggestion? Slowly and incrementally lower your head over the course of several months to a year. Try changing the height an inch at a time, making no immediate drastic changes, until your neck sits comfortably in a neutral position. At Rush-Henrietta Family Chiropractic, we help patients with neck and should issues, regularly. Ask up about the best positions to try for your own neck-health.