I have been treating people with neck pain for 20 years now and this is one of the most commonly asked questions I get. As you look around on the internet it can be difficult to make an informed choice because many of the sites are promoting their own products-good or bad. So let’s take a look at a few factors you need to keep in mind with pillows and a restful night’s sleep.
What you want is that the pillow will keep your head and neck in a neutral position and well supported. In other words, you need to keep your head from tilting laterally to the sides, backwards into extension or pushed forwards into the forward head posture which is your enemy number 1! If you lay on your back and your pillow is too thick and pushes your head into the forward head posture you are definitely going to have problems. But more of that later.
Think of how you would feel if I asked you to spend the day walking around with your head on one side pushed down towards your ear. It would not only be painful to do but would also hurt for a while afterwards. Your neck is in a side bent position for hours which is does not like. It’s no different if you are lying horizontal in your bed and have a pillow that is too high or hard and doesn’t allow your head to sink in a little to get to a level spinal position. Likewise, if you have a feather pillow it may also have too much give and your head sinks in too far and your head once again ends up in a side bent position.
Here are a few studies done on the contour pillow and their results:
There was one study done using x-ray imaging to compare the curve of the cervical vertebra in the ‘roll-shaped’ pillows and the other ‘normal’ pillows. The researchers found that the roll shaped ones actually restored the optimal curve of the neck and also decreased the amount of neck pain! (Jackson R, The Cervical Syndrome, 4th edn, Charles C. Thomas, 1987).
Another interesting study was done with nearly one hundred fibromyalgia patients and 60 other patients who had only recently been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. All of the patients suffered with neck pain. They checked 18 months later and discovered that with these pillows, 63% and 84% respectively has significantly improved! (J Rheumatol, 1994; 21: 8).
And in another study, they compared three types of pillows in terms of the intensity of pain, relief of pain, if the person slept more soundly, disability and overall satisfaction in people with mild neck pain. They discovered that with the correct pillow you can reduce neck pain considerably and get a better night sleep. (Arch Phys Med Rehab, 1997; 78: 193-8).
And finally there was a study done to see if people who did not suffer from neck pain would have any adverse effects from using one of these pillows. The answer came back a resounding NO. Not only did they feel any neck pain from using them but 83% also said that their quality of sleep was also greatly improved! (J Can Chiropr Assoc, 1998; 42: 156-62).
However, I would like to add that your pillow will become much less a factor when you stop hurting it all day every day. When you stop injuring your neck hour after hour, minute after minute at work, at home, reading, eating drinking and even driving your neck will settle down and you will be out of pain. It’s very much like if you were to walk around all day stubbing your toe and every night you needed to soak it in a warm bath Epsom salts bath each night to ease the pain. If I showed you how to stop stubbing your toe each day you would not need to ‘nurse’ your toe every night to heal and get ready for the damage you were about to inflict on it again the following day.
Your neck is no different! Remove the causes and your neck will be allowed to heal and you will be pain free.