One of the most common questions we get at Lynch Physical Therapy is: What kind of pillow do you recommend? And the answer is...well, it depends.
Do you sleep on your side, back, or stomach?
Do you toss and turn?
What kind of pillow do you currently use?
Do you wake up throughout the night due to neck/jaw pain?
Do you wake up in the morning with neck/jaw pain?
Have you ever been diagnosed with sleep apnea?
The answers to these questions can help to determine whether a new pillow would be beneficial.
So, how can a pillow cause neck pain? What would a “bad” pillow look like?
There have been several studies that identify how pillow height can have a negative impact on the cervical spine. A pillow that is too high (left photo) or too low (right photo) can cause the head to bend forward or stretch backwards, respectively, which can lead to neck tension.
Loft can also influence pressure distribution of the body. A pillow that is too low can increase the pressure in the back of the head. As pillow height increases, pressure increases more towards the neck (shown below) and can go so far as to shift downward towards the hips! Therefore, too much or too little neck pressure (neck contact with a pillow) can lead to discomfort.
What should you look for when choosing a pillow?
The goal would be to find a pillow that allows for proper head-neck alignment (shown below). Pillows come in all shapes and sizes, and some are very expensive. So, knowing what to look for is helpful.
An important factor in your choice will be dependent on how you sleep: on your back, stomach, on your side, or all over.
If you sleep on your back, it would be best to have a pillow that is a little flatter, with just enough space to provide support for the curve in your neck. If you currently have a pillow that feels okay, but do not feel like you are getting the support you need, you can try rolling up a towel and placing it in your pillowcase at the bottom of your pillow.
If you are a side sleeper, having a pillow that is about the width of your ear to your shoulder is ideal. We often recommend that side sleepers add a pillow between their legs or use a body pillow to help maintain proper hip alignment throughout the night.
If you are a stomach sleeper, try to use a very flat pillow or no pillow at all and place a pillow under your hips to offset the pressure on your low back. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t recommend you sleep in any other position because sleeping on your stomach places a large amount of pressure on your spine and can cause neck pain (from laying with your head to one side - especially the sternocleidomastoid muscle).
If you are a versatile sleeper and find yourself rolling throughout the night, a contour pillow would work best. You’d have the best of both worlds (low middle and raised sides)!
While you may feel like Goldilocks on your quest to find the perfect pillow, we hope you find this information helpful during your search. My colleagues and I at Lynch Physical Therapy would also be more than happy to take a look at your pillow and see if it’s a good fit for you and your needs!
Because of our specialty in neck and TMJ pain, we at Lynch Physical Therapy are often asked for pillow recommendations. While no one pillow is going to be perfect for everyone, we have found that the Chiroflow ergonomic water-based pillow has warranted the best responses from our patients. With a balance of water and cushion, this pillow is able to conform to the head and neck throughout various sleeping positions. Additionally, the firmness of the pillow is adjustable, making it versatile for a variety of patient body types.
The Chiroflow pillow is available for purchase at both our Severna Park and Towson locations.