One of the essential keys to overall health is receiving a consistent level of good sleep every night. When a person is fully rested they are ready to meet all the challenges their day holds. Conversely, those who experience poor sleep and/or pain from the simple act of sleeping itself, are not only ill-prepared for the rest of their day. Over time they could also be creating real physical issues. Neck pain from a pinched nerve(s), a reduced cervical curve, or bulging cervical discs are examples. In this article, we will outline the basic anatomy of the cervical spine, issues like, neck pain, that can stem from a less than ideal pillow, along with some tips on how to maintain the ideal sleeping conditions for such a vital portion of the spine.

Cervical Anatomy

The cervical area is the portion of the spine located in the neck, just below the skull. The cervical area consists of seven vertebrae (bones) stacked on top of each other, with fluid-filled, spongy cervical discs in between each pair of vertebral bones. As with the lumbar (lower back) area of the spine, the cervical area also has a natural curve. It forms a loose “c” shape which helps to provide some natural shock absorption to the spine and head. The occipital muscles at the base of the skull also attach to the cervical area. These sometimes play a role in headaches that stem from cervical issues.

Possible Signs of a Bad Pillow

Over time, chronically irritated nerves, muscles, and other tissues can lead spinal structures to shift out of their proper position, placing stress on spinal discs. Much like “tech neck”, sleeping with one’s neck in a distorted position for many years can cause notable damage to once healthy spinal structures.

Here are some of the symptoms from a poorly-fitting pillow:

  • Stiffness
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder area pain upon waking
  • Numbness and tingling throughout the arms, hands, and/or fingers during sleep
  • Pain in the collarbone area
  • Headaches that seem to radiate from the back of the head

Anatomy of a Great Pillow

A pillow that is neither too thick or too thin is great for cervical health in back and/or side sleepers. Ideally, a pillow should help maintain the neck in a neutral position as much as possible.

For back sleepers, this means selecting a pillow that supports the natural curve of the cervical area. Back sleepers should not try to sleep on several propped up pillows, which can leave the neck in a forward-tilted position for long periods.

Side sleepers also need a pillow that keeps the cervical area in a neutral position. If an imaginary line was drawn from one end to the other, a side sleeper’s neck would neither be lower or higher than the rest of their spine. Side sleepers also need a pillow that provides enough room for their shoulder area to reside comfortably. The thoracic outlet, the area between the cervical region and the clavicle (collar bone), needs sufficient room for vital nerves, arteries, and veins that supply each arm. As with back sleepers, side sleepers should find and use only one pillow that provides the proper support for their neck and adjacent areas.

Sleeping on one’s back is generally discouraged since it forces a person to twist their neck to either side while sleeping. However, for those who simply cannot sleep unless they are on their stomach, they should sleep with either no pillow at all or at least a very thin one. The purpose of this is once again, is to avoid placing additional stress on the neck from tilting the head upward. This occurs with the use of a very thick pillow or multiple pillows.

Finding Help For Your Neck Pain

Especially if a person’s neck issues are becoming more severe, reaching out to a professional physical therapist is a smart move. Along with recommending the right pillow for all the various sleeping positions, physical therapists can also help reduce neck pain from irritated tissues, recommend stretching exercises to maintain and increase range of motion, and offer professional advice on how to maintain “good posture” even while sleeping.

If you suspect your pillow is causing your neck pain, please contact Cawley Rehab at cawleyptfrank@gmail.com or call us at 570-208-2787.