Insight by Dr. Nicole Mastando

A good nights sleep begins with the right pillow

Posted: October 6, 2015
By: Dr Nicole Mastando

Do you wake up most days with neck pain that seems to get better throughout the day only to return the next morning? If you said yes there's a good chance that you're one of millions of people who are using the wrong pillow, sleeping in the wrong position or both. Forutnately, in many cases making a couple of simple changes is all you need to feel great again.

When it comes to pillows there is no such thing as "one size fits all." As a matter of fact, pillows that are "designed" to relieve neck pain are often gimmicks; very expensive gimmicks I might add. It doesn't matter what your pillow is made of or what it costs. If you are using a pillow that doesn't suit you, you are wasting your money. The good news is that once you learn what to look for, you'll never fall for the marketing tricks again.

We've all seen advertising claims that "designate" a particular pillow for a specific sleeping position. In most cases, these are marketing ploys that stuff the pockets of the retailer.

The one exception is the contoured pillow, which 99 percent of the time, is for back sleeping only. The very petite may get away with sleeping on their side on a contoured pillow, but it is not common.

Before I move on, I'd like to address stomach sleeping, it can cause neck pain and low back problems that may go undetected for years. Stomach sleeping, no matter how comfortable, is never good for your spine. You may balk at this statement, especially if you prefer to sleep on your stomach, but I can tell you that breaking this habit is easier than you think. The interesting thing is that most of us start out lying on our side only to end up on our stomach because the pillow is too flat.

Once you get a thicker, firmer pillow that supports your spine horizontally while keeping your spine and head aligned, your muscles can relax. This eliminates the strain and discomfort that causes the rolling into the stomach sleeping position.

Here's what to look for in a pillow.

If you are a side sleeper, you'll need a pillow that keeps your head up and level with the rest of the spine. You want your head  in a neutral position with regard to tilt and rotation. The position should be very comfortable and the pillow should be easily positioned low enough to support the neck. The pillow may be made of cotton, rubber or a blend.

In many cases, memory foam is too soft to support the head in a side laying position, so to be safe I'd avoid it.

If you prefer to lie on your back, you're going to want a slimmer pillow that supports the neck without raising the head past the chest (unless you have heart or lung conditions and then you want to be sure to prop up from your chest).

Your head should again, be aligned with your spine. The back sleeping position requires a pillow that is for the sole purpose of supporting the head and not lifting it.

If you toss from your back and side, you're going to want to pick a pillow that supports you in the position you prefer or spend the most time in. I have not seen many patients who are able to find a pillow that supports them in both of these positions.

If you are like me and wake up when you turn over, it is easy to change pillows especially if they are light-weight (unlike the water filled pillow). I sleep on a dense 3-inch diameter foam roll while on my back. This foam roll pillow is similar to the pillows that are made with a center hole cut out of it.

These pillows (often known as D-core) are for back sleeping. I would not advise using either of these things without having worked up to this type of "severe" support. Most people are not used to proper neck suport and such a drastic change can create muscle woreness.

If you want to use this type of pillow, which in my opinion is the best for back sleeping, you'll want to use it for small periods of time initially to see if you are sore.

If you sleep on your side or your back and have a pillow sized (and shaped) to accommodate you in that position, you'll most likely feel the difference right away.

If these things have not resolved your neck pain. I would advise you to see a doctor.