A lack of sleep is detrimental to our overall health and well-being. One of the simple things we can do is provide ourselves a proper sleeping environment. One of the key factors is having a proper pillow. If you have ever woken up with a stiff neck or headache for weeks on end, it is likely you have considered a new pillow. Pillow shopping can create as much headache as using a bad pillow, but it is a necessary journey we all must take.
The first thing you must know is what position you typically sleep in. You may not need a thick pillow if you are a stomach sleeper or a back sleeper. The same thick pillow that may be terrible for a stomach sleeper may be perfect for a side sleeper. This all leads to gimmicky marketing of a one pillow for all that never works.
A pillow’s goal is to get you a good night’s rest. The best way for it to accomplish this is to provide balanced support in your sleeping position while keeping the neck and shoulders in a neutral position. If your head and neck are flexed forward this can put strain in the muscles at the base of the skull and lead to chronic headaches. If you put too much extension into the neck, it can cause irritation of the joints of the neck and lead to headaches or long-term neck pain.
There are multiple styles of pillows that are marketed for all styles of sleep. I am a back sleeper and currently use a very thin pillow for support. In the past I have also found contour pillows to be good for this position as they provide space for the shoulders at the bottom of the pillow, a small contour for support of cervical curve and a dip for the head. The contour positioning usually keeps the head from dropping down off the pillow and putting tension on the areas which will create a headache. There are pillows with a hollowed-out dip in the middle which also serve this purpose. If you don’t have or want to invest in a contour pillow, find a thinner style pillow and roll up the bottom slightly and lay the neck on it. Ideally you should feel a very slight pressure push into the curve of the neck with no pressure on the muscles at the base of the skull.
If I turn over onto my side, I usually double up the smaller pillow to fill the gap between the bed and my ear. If you always sleep on your side, a thicker pillow is going to be very comfortable for you. Thickness is the key for the side sleeper, and you want to make sure the head is not bent further to one side or the other. Keeping everything in a neutral position is the theme. There is a myriad of pillows that fit this class. You must determine the correct thickness then decide on what material is most comfortable for you.
Growing up I was a stomach sleeper. I found myself typically going to sleep on my stomach with my head turned to the right. Over years of doing this, I inadvertently worked on shortening my neck muscle on the right and lengthening the ones on the left. If you walk around for 6-8 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year with your head rotated to one side you would find it is very uncomfortable, so why do this during sleep? If you are a stomach sleeper, make sure you have a very thin pillow. It is impossible for the neck to be in a neutral position on your stomach, but you can lessen the tension by making sure a thick pillow is not putting your head and neck into extension.
There will be times when the old faithful pillow just stops working. When this occurs don’t hesitate to replace it. We spend so many hours a day on our pillow that we need to get this one right. Take time, decide your sleeping posture and go out and find yourself the next pillow. I would make sure it has a great return policy because the first try may not be the last.
– Aaron Workman, DC
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