Neck and back pain can arise from a fall, a car accident, arthritis, bad posture, or spending the bulk of your day at a computer. You may also wake up with a stiff neck or a sore back because your pillow isn’t doing a good job of supporting your head and spine in the proper alignment. Even if your pillow isn’t the source of your neck or back pain, sleeping with the wrong pillow may be making matters worse.
If your pillow is flat or lumpy or you keep adjusting it to get comfortable, if you wake up during the night or wake up in pain most mornings, your pillow is probably not providing the support you need. Replacing your pillow is a simple change that may significantly improve your sleep and quality of life.
Characteristics to consider when shopping for a pillow
One important factor is a pillow’s loft, or the angle it holds your head at relative to your spine. If your pillow is too high or too low, your neck will be positioned at an awkward angle while you’re sleeping, and it will have to compensate for the lack of support from the pillow. That can cause you to wake up in pain.
A pillow should contour to support your neck and reduce pressure points. Cervical pillows conform to the neck to provide the necessary support.
The firmness of the pillow is another critical factor. It needs to be firm enough to provide adequate support, but not so firm that it causes pressure points. The firmness that’s right for you will depend on your head size and preferred sleeping position, as well as the height of the pillow and the firmness of your mattress.
Common pillow materials
Memory foam can contour to support your head and neck and keep your spine in alignment. Memory foam pillows are affordable, hypoallergenic, and available at a wide range of stores and online retailers, but some people find them uncomfortable because they trap heat.
Polyfoam pillows can contour to your neck and respond better to pressure than memory foam. They are lightweight, hypoallergenic, and inexpensive. The downsides are that polyfoam can trap heat and will develop indentations over time, which means you may have to replace polyfoam pillows frequently.
Buckwheat is a natural material that’s breathable, durable, environmentally friendly, and resistant to allergens. Buckwheat holds its shape well and can provide good neck support, but buckwheat pillows aren’t as soft as ones made with other materials, and they can make noise when you shift your position in bed. They are also more expensive than other types of pillows.
Feather pillows are soft, and you can add or remove feathers to get the right loft. Over time, though, the feathers can get compressed and displaced, which can reduce the amount of support the pillows provide.
Down pillows are made with soft, lightweight feathers from ducks and geese. Down is expensive, and some people are allergic to it. Down-alternative pillows are made from polyester fibers, but both materials can lose their shape quickly and fail to provide adequate support.
Pillows made with latex offer good support. They can also minimize pressure points and regulate temperature. Latex is usually shredded, and you may be able to adjust the amount of filling to suit your needs.
The relationship between your pillow and sleeping position
Learning how to sleep with neck pain can help you wake up feeling better. It’s best to sleep on your back or side because sleeping on your stomach can put pressure on your spine.
- If you can only sleep on your stomach, use a pillow with a low loft.
- If you sleep on your side, choose a pillow with a loft that’s equal to the distance between your ears and the edge of your shoulders. That can keep your head and spine in alignment.
- If you have back or hip pain, sciatica, or a herniated disc, sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees may help. Sleeping in that position can keep your knees on top of each other and keep your spine from rotating. That position can also help you sleep comfortably if you’re pregnant.
- If you sleep on your back, a pillow with a medium loft should work. If you can’t find a pillow that provides the right support, you can try sleeping with a small, round pillow under your neck, in addition to your primary pillow.
- If you have back or hip pain and you like to sleep on your back, placing a pillow under your knees may be beneficial. That can keep your spine neutral, distribute your weight, and discourage you from shifting positions while you’re asleep.
Many people don’t realize how important their pillow is. The right pillow can help you get a good night’s sleep and alleviate neck and back pain, while the wrong pillow can cause pain or make pain from another source even worse. If your current pillow isn’t giving you the appropriate support, it’s time to replace it.
Some pillows may be pricey, but if they’re made with quality materials and will last for several years, the higher cost can be money well spent. When you think about how vital sleep is and how chronic neck and back pain can diminish your quality of life, investing in a quality pillow is a small price to pay.
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