Are you using the right pillow?

Do you constantly wake up in the morning with a stiff or aching neck? There could be many reasons why this is happening, but it is always important to rule out the cause of your pain and stiffness isn’t the pillow you are using. When we talk about posture you generally think about maintaining a straight spine whilst going about our day-to-day lives but it is also very important to address your sleeping posture. When you consider you spend approximately a third of your life in bed it is important to try and maintain the best spinal alignment and support.

Poor sleeping habits can create changes in your spinal alignment and your overall posture, leading to conditions such as muscular strains, ligament tears and headaches. The amount of times I’ve seen people come into the clinic waking up with unbearable neck pain is astounding especially when you consider it could have been avoided… quite easily.

Before we delve into what pillow is right for you we want to eliminate one of the worst sleeping habits people like to do, which is sleeping on your stomach. I know, some people feel comfortable on their stomach or cant help but turn onto their stomach throughout the night but we need to break this habit. When we sleep on our stomachs we flatten out our important low back curve that can lead to low back pain.

Sleeping on your stomach also makes it harder to breathe and in some studies has shown to increase intradiscal pressure of lumbar/low back discs. Also when you sleep on your stomach you will tend to sleep with your head turned to one side throughout the night. Just imagine turning your head to the right and keeping it in that position for 6-8 hours. This can cause ligament strains, muscle tears and potentially a permanent shift of the vertebra.

Now we have got that out the way we can talk about what pillow is right for you. First of all you have to figure out what position you spend most of the time in; side or back… and no “all different positions” is not an answer.

What type of sleeper are you?

Side Sleepers

If you have concluded that you are a side sleeper great. Now its time to think of what pillow is right for your body type. The first thing you need to address is the height of the pillow. Whilst sleeping on our side we want to keep the spine as straight and as neutral as possible so the pillow you get should fill the void between your head and shoulder.

So if you have broad shoulders you would go with a higher pillow (high profile) and if you have narrower shoulders you can opt for either a low or medium profile pillow. To get a good gauge of what is the right one, stand up with your shoulders against the wall and then insert the pillow into the space.

Back Sleepers

Back sleeping is considered by some as the “cosmetic position” as it decreases the development of wrinkles formed because your face being smooched into a pillow (not too sure about this but I thought I’d mention it haha). It also allows people to breathe clearly however ironically has been linked to increasing the symptoms of sleep apnoea.

When we sleep on our back we want to maintain the “S” spinal curve the best we can. When we assess “poor posture” you instantly think of the a person slouching and the head translating forward in relation to the neck. We want to avoid this position as much as possible, and for that reason a shallower/thinner pillow is recommended.

I know contoured pillows are not comfortable for some but they are ideal for back sleepers. A pillow that is somewhat elevated in lower third is ideal for back sleepers at it will cradle the natural “C” curve of the neck and support it. A pillow that is too high combined with poor postural habits throughout the day can lead to a complete loss of the “C” curve and lead to spinal degeneration, pain and headaches.

Density & material of your pillow

Got a feather or down pillow? Toss it out or put on a fancy pillowcase and use them as decoration cause that’s all they are good for. What you need is something with a memory foam/latex material of a medium to high density. These will give you the optimal support throughout your sleep. These tend to be a tad bit more expensive than the feather pillows but you need to invest into good pillows considering the amount of time we spend in bed, and they last for years!

Hopefully this little spiel answered all your questions regarding picking the right pillow. If you are one those people who woke up in pain, grab a new pillow you today won’t regret it.

Author: James Hayes