Do you find yourself waking up in the mornings with neck or back pain and stiffness? Are you constantly fluffing, poking, prodding and flipping your pillow to help find the most comfortable position for sleep? If you have ever woken up with a sore, stiff, 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 upon you. 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.
In Rochester, New York one of the things we often hear and experience, is how the change in temperature affects sleep. During cold months, Rochester and western New York residents snuggle into the warmth of their beds with lots of pillows and blankets. But “warm” and “comfortable” aren’t the same thing. During warm months, our region tends to be humid. At that point most Rochester residents want “cool pillow” but are still lacking the proper opposition and support to promote restful sleep.
The Modern Pillow
The thought process behind the modern pillow is intended to help us in our sleep and help us feel comfortable. However, the majority of people we speak with in Rochester (and everywhere else) are still 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.
Frankly, the thick pillow is not so bad if you’re a side sleeper, but if you sleep on your back a thick, fluffy pillow is basically the antagonist of restful sleep and a healthy spine. These ‘gigantic mounds of fluff’ have a habit of pushing the 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 maintain “relaxed and happy” neck muscles.
Which way of sleeping is best?
Sleeping on your back is generally considered to be the optimal method to keep your back and head held in a neutral position. For “back sleepers”, 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, and firm enough to support the head and neck strongly in a neutral position. 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. And in Rochester, New York for several cold-months of the year you may find a flannel pillow case the most comfortable.
If you sleep on your stomach, I strongly encourage you to consider changing this habit to 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, in Rochester New York, we help patients with neck and should issues, regularly. Ask up about the best positions to try for your own neck-health.