Sleep is restorative. You wake feeling clear-headed, refreshed, free of the pains that plagued you when you hit the sack the night before, right?
Hmmm…not if sleeping is literally a pain in your neck! For many people, cervical spine pain makes restorative sleep elusive.
Maybe you wake in the middle of the night with exacerbated pain or perhaps you can’t even get comfortable enough to fall asleep in the first place because your neck hurts.
While there are many things you can do to potentially alleviate neck pain while awake – yoga, physical therapy, chiropractic visits, medical care, and more – what can you do when you sleep?
Nestling your noggin on a cervical pillow is a passive way that might bring some relief.
Using a cervical pillow is a promising way to that might help you improve your sleeping position to relieve spinal strain by increasing space between your vertebrae while sleeping.
Think about it, the recommended number of hours of sleep for the average adult is 7-9 hours. Add to that the number of hours the average person might lie in bed looking at a phone or on a couch watching TV. Poor head and neck position while you are lying down, hour after hour, can add to your problems.
What is a Cervical Pillow?
Unlike traditional rectangular bed pillows that try to please everyone, cervical pillows are specially shaped in ways that decrease strain on the neck for back and side sleepers.
Traditional pillows lift sleeper’s heads high off the bed, which results in creating too much curve in the upper spine and distorting posture.
With any type of pillow, sleeping on your side or your back, according to the experts, are the most neck friendly sleeping positions. However, traditional pillows, because of shape and height don’t always adequately support those positions throughout the night. Users end up waking to toss and turn and fluff and flip trying to find the sweet spot.
The good news is, that if you are a supine or side sleeper, cervical pillows are that sweet spot. Using a cervical pillow while side or back sleeping improves the chances of not waking with a crick in your neck.
Types of Cervical Pillows
Cervical pillows may also be called “ergonomic” or “orthopedic” pillows, but they all share one common goal – aligning the cervical spine (your neck) properly during sleep.
Pillow designs accomplish this in a variety of ways. Here are some examples!
The Divot Pillow
Some cervical pillows look similar to a standard pillow, but basically flatten the center where your head will go. Creating a “divot” in the middle of the pillow is a common design feature.
Here’s an example of another one, this time in memory foam and the pillow overall looks a bit more funky.
The Roll Pillow
Another common design of cervical pillows is one that features a roll, or cylinder shape, where your neck is. The pillow then usually transitions to a thinner surface for your head to rest on.
Other times, the transition between the roll and the rest of the pillow won’t be as extreme looking as seen below. Note that the larger side of the pillow is supposed to go under your neck.
Can I Use a Cervical Pillow for Stomach Sleeping?
Studies show that stomach sleeping is the worst position for neck pain. If you are a stomach sleeper and are firmly faithful to the idea of sleeping on your belly, a cervical pillow won’t work for you. However, you can try using a thin pillow to get your head and neck in a better position. And, it might be wise to consider trying to transition from your tummy to supine or side sleeping with a cervical pillow.
Does a Cervical Pillow Help with Neck Pain?
Regardless of the exact shape, all cervical pillows are designed to keep your head in alignment with your upper spine while you snooze (or are just lying down). According to a 2016 study, the problem with many pillows for people who suffer neck pain is that they are thick and lift the head too high for back-lying and side sleeping, increasing pressure on the cervical spine and compressing discs.
The shape of a contoured pillow, in contrast, decreases curvature in the upper spine. This is important since maintaining better spinal alignment while sleeping can lessen pain for some people while sleeping. More time spent in a healthy back position with decreased prolonged pressure on the upper spine while sleeping (and just being able to sleep if the pain has been preventing that) might lead to better mobility while awake.
It may also lead to increased general comfort and the daytime clarity needed to follow through with other measures to mitigate cervical spine pain- like exercise, chiropractic appointments, physical therapy, and more.
One study shows that a good cervical pillow can not only lessen pain while you’re in dreamland and give you more of a chance of decreased daily pain, but it also positions your head in an airway friendly alignment. This means better oxygenation for your muscles and organs while you sleep, which can go a long way in helping your body heal.
Improved breathing can, potentially, help sleepers stay asleep during crucial sleep phases! The brain, after all, uses sleep to literally wash itself of neural detritus nightly. For some, a cervical pillow can aid the type of restorative sleep that is key to good brain and body health.
What Does a Cervical Pillow Look Like?
Cervical pillows come in various styles. Some look like a traditional pillow but have a depressed “core” or center. These types of contour pillows are raised on the sides and have a divot in the middle to cradle your head while lying on your back.
The core area is sometimes filled with a different material than the sides of these pillows. When sleeping on your side, you use the raised sides of a contour pillow.
Other rectangular cervical pillows forgo the core and, instead, have a gradual rise from front to back so the pillow looks wavy.
For hardcore side sleepers, a cervical pillow that is shaped like a cylinder might do the trick to beat the crick.
How to Choose a Cervical Pillow for Neck Pain
If you’re interested in trying a cervical pillow, take your time and do some research. The shape, height, firmness and the materials used to construct and cover the pillow can vary. If you have allergies, definitely make sure the material used meshes with your system. Sneezing ruins snoozing.
Some sleepers like materials that remain cool throughout the night. This is especially important if you select a pillow style that cannot be flipped over if the sleeping side heats-up.
Read the details of your purchase to see what is inside the pillow. Is it filled with cotton, polyester, bamboo, buckwheat, water, or what? Various materials retain or dissipate heat differently. The exterior of the pillow also matters. Manufacturers usually specify if it is covered in a fabric that is durable and/or cooling.
Consider, too, whether or not the pillow is washable, if it at least has a removable cover and if the manufacturer makes a suitable removable cover. This is important! if you fall in love with your pillow, you need to be able to clean it.
Pillows can harbor all sorts of things over time that can be detrimental to health – dust mites, bacteria, and the like. Don’t create a new health problem while you tackle that pain in your neck!
When trying or purchasing a cervical pillow is choosing one with appropriate firmness and height to suit you. Remember, less is usually more when it comes to the height of the center of a contour pillow.
You want a pillow that provides enough lift to elevate your head slightly, but not so much that it closes your airway and forces your chin to your chest. If you are unsure, there are some pillows out there that have layers you can remove in order to adjust pillow height.
Think about firmness too. Find a gentle lift, but not necessarily something your head sinks into. Super soft is not necessarily your friend when it comes to supine sleeping.
A Couple Things Before You Doze Off!
Keep in mind that, like with most things, it might take your body a while to adjust to using a contour pillow. Don’t toss your old pillow out right away. You might find that for the first couple of weeks you wean yourself off your old pillow and onto your new one.
Give your head and spine time to adjust to the new position. While it will likely be a healthier posture for you in the long run, the change won’t happen overnight! It might take several nights of sleep to start to reap the long term benefits.
Remember that using a contour pillow is usually best when it is part of a solution that considers the big picture. If you suffer from chronic and severe cervical spine pain, see a doctor for a diagnosis so you can start building a plan to target all aspects of the issue.
Stand up every hour and move if you find yourself sitting a lot during your waking hours. And, consider sleeping on a contour pillow. It might awaken the pain-free, well-rested person inside of you.