Living With Chronic Pain

The Right Pillow Can Make Or Break A Good Night’s Sleep

Living with chronic pain is a daily struggle, even more so at night when getting uninterrupted sleep may seem like a dream. That’s why what we do to prepare, matters. Pillows may sound inconsequential but when the position of your neck, low back, and extremities can impact pain, they become a priority in helping to find the best position possible.

Pillows are also versatile, letting us change them throughout the night as needs evolve. If you’re like me, how I feel getting into bed is not how I feel hours later. Stiffening muscles and resultant spasms are often the reason my sleep is constantly interrupted.

It’s estimated 2/3 of people awaken each morning with a stiff or painful neck. The way we are positioned throughout the evening could be a contributing factor. Whether a side, back or stomach sleeper, picking the correct pillow to support the spine and its natural turns is imperative to awakening refreshed.

Pillows are a simple and effective beginning to a good night’s rest. Especially when you realize we spend approximately two thirds of our lives in bed. Pillows that alter our natural posture because they are too hard, too full or force our spine to flex or extend improperly for hours can cause or exacerbate pain. In one study a supportive pillow and exercising regularly were more effective in diminishing chronic pain than massage and hot or cold packs.

What pillows offer

What’s inside the pillow can make all the difference. Studies show feather are the least favorite in improving the quality of sleep because they give little to no support. Latex or polyester fills had the highest rating. Unless you’re allergic, natural latex rated highest because it doesn’t heat up like memory foam. The benefit of mixed fills hasn’t been researched but those with too much inside can force the neck into unnatural positions or allow some of the material to deform or tamp down with time, altering its contour. This can happen with any pillow over time, so experts recommend switching your pillow every 1-2 years. And wash it twice a year to get rid of dander, pet hair, dust mites.

Memory foam pillows have become increasingly popular but may require the addition of a chemical fire retardant because many are made from petroleum products that are highly flammable. Down and feather sound great but not to the animals who are often abused when using them as a resource. Latex comes from rubber trees so it’s often marketed as a natural and safe alternative to the petroleum chemicals in foam pillows. But make sure it’s 100% latex. Anything less and it can still be touted as “natural latex” and yet contain polyurethane products.

Today down, feather, latex and foam aren’t the only pillow fillers available. There are hundreds to choose from, many sustainable and eco- friendly. Examples of sustainabile options include cotton, hemp, buckwheat hull, and tencel. Others can be recycled from cotton, wool, polyester or plastic bottles. The last feel like their feather down counterparts but are hypoallergenic, cool, machine washable, and extremely moldable.

Pillows help us to maintain proper positioning while we sleep. Studies show a majority prefer sleeping on their sides. But whether a side, back or stomach position is your style they all have their drawbacks if they don’t keep the neck and lower spine in a neutral position. Body size also matters. Those with wider shoulders should have a firmer pillow to maintain proper spinal alignment.

  • Side sleepers need to keep their neck in alignment with the spine. This means making sure your ears are at the same level as your shoulders. This usually requires a thicker pillow for the head in order to elevate the neck and a rolled pillow under the neck to offer better support. For improved alignment add a pillow under the resting arm and another between the knees to put the rest of the spine in its proper position.
  • Back sleepers must support the neck so it doesn’t get above the spine, forcing it into flexion or fall below the spine forcing the neck into an extended position. This often requires a medium filled pillow. Extra support can be added by using a rolled up towel or an additional pillow under the neck. Contour pillows might be the perfect option for those who want both support for the head and neck in one pillow. And don’t forget the lower back! Place a pillow or two under the knees to minimize lumbar strain and align this area as well.
  • Stomach sleepers have the biggest hurdles to overcome because the neck has to be rotated and the low back arched to sleep. This means a small, thin pillow or no pillow at all under the head may be best. For some, moving the pillow under the shoulders may be needed to finish aligning the spine, along with a second one under the face area so the neck doesn’t fall forward in an overly flexed position. And don’t forget the hips and abdomen. Placing another pillow here will continue maintain and support the natural curve of the spine.

Getting a good night’s sleep might be as simple as changing or rearranging the pillow. Whatever your issue or budget finding one that will work for your individual needs shouldn’t be a problem with all the options available today. Since most manufacturers have a money back guarantee you’ll have plenty of time to see which one fits best before committing. If nothing offers relief follow up with your provider.


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