The relationship between neck pain and our pillow is more important than most of us realize!
Though we all may have at one time or another slept on a variety of surfaces, and used any number of pillows (flat, medium, bulky) made of different materials (foam, feather, air, water, or memory foam), it’s usually not until neck pain and/or headaches start to become an issue that we start to think, “…how important is my pillow?” Thankfully, the question has been addressed in a randomized peer-reviewed study. So, what did they find out?
The goal of a pillow is to support the neck more so than the head. In a study headed by Dr. Liselott Persson of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Lund in Sweden, researchers tested whether specific neck pillows have any effect on neck pain, headache, and sleep quality in people suffering from chronic (>3months), non-specific neck pain. They also researched whether there was an optimum or “best” type of pillow that was preferred by their 52 patient groups.
They used 4 different pillows, 1 “normal” pillow and 3 of which were specially designed, each having a different shape and consistency. Over a 4-10 week time frame, the pillows were randomly distributed to the neck pain group who then graded them according to comfort, their effect on neck pain, sleep quality, and headaches using a questionnaire, and also described the characteristics of an “ideal pillow.” Researchers and participants concluded the “ideal pillow” (for reducing neck pain and headaches and improving quality of sleep) is a soft pillow with good support under the neck’s curve (lordosis).
There are many styles of contoured cervical or neck pillows that vary considerably. This study supports the use of a specially designed style over a normal pillow. So what are some of the things to look for? First, consider your neck’s length and girth. When you look in a mirror, do you have a neck that is short vs. long or, narrow vs. wide?
This will direct you to a pillow that has a larger “hump” for your neck to be cradled in if it’s a long neck and, the height of the hump – taller for the slender neck or, shorter for the wide neck. Some pillows have two options of “hump” sizes (located on the long edges of the pillow) – one short and flat and the other side taller and wider. Others recommend lying in the middle of the pillow if you’re a back sleeper vs. lying on the edge of a pillow when sleeping on your sides.
A measurement taken from the neck to the point of the shoulder determines if the pillow should be a small, medium, or large. The shape of water-filled and/or air-filled pillows can be varied by the amount of water or air added. The bottom line of which is “best” is based on comfort and support. Regardless of which you choose, it can take several days to get used to the new pillow, so we recommend using the pillow for at least one week. By then, you’ll know if you chose the right style.
Dr. Matthew Dunn