There are literally hundreds of neck and head pillows on the market but how do you go about finding the best pillow for neck pain relief? After over 30 years in my neck and spine practice as a DC and seeing over 10,000 patients, I can tell you some very important things to look for and equally, some very important things to avoid. So let’s get right into it.
The NEED. Did you know that in any given year, one out of four people experience pain in their neck? And one source says that there is up to 86.8 percent chance that any given person will experience neck pain in their life. Finally, in regards to prevalence, it has been shown that there is a higher incidence in women, higher income countries and people in urban areas. So it makes perfect sense that if your neck pain is getting worse or perhaps you have neck pain from sleeping, you need to read on.
The CAUSE. There are as many causes for neck pain as there are pillows! But I am going to break it down into three basic categories that most of the patients I see fall into: 1) Neck pain from sleeping 2) Neck pain caused by stress 3) Neck pain from arthritis. There can certainly be overlap between these three common causes and a plethora of other causes and neck pain symptoms, but for the sake of brevity, I will expand on these three simple and relevant causes.
Finding the Best Pillow for Neck Pain Relief
When a person falls asleep, we are at the mercy of our pillow to keep our heads in the proper alignment. We are obviously unconscious but our minds are in a state of fluctuating between four stages of sleep.
During REM sleep, the muscles of our body are by and large in a state of complete paralyzation, meaning that our brain shuts down muscle activity to avoid us acting out our dreams and hurting ourselves (or accidently our bed partners). Interestingly enough, our neck muscles give about 90% of the support needed to support our cervical spines and so when they are shut down, it renders our cervical discs, ligaments, tendons and muscles basically useless, causing extreme susceptibility for injury.
Therefore, without the proper support of the head and neck during sleep, we create a far greater chance of injuring our necks during sleep. In fact, in my thirty plus years of practice, I estimate that 80 percent of the neck pain I see in my practice is created while someone sleeps! Therefore, I consider the lack of proper neck and head pillow support that almost all ordinary pillows and even 99% of the so-called “therapeutic pillows” on the market, are the MAJOR cause of neck pain in our society.
BY FAR THE MOST important function and role of a proper neck pain relief pillow is to maintain one’s neck in the optimal anatomical position while we sleep. The proper position of the cervical spine is the position whereby the NECK is SUPPORTED in the lordotic (a reversed curve, similar to a gymnasts lower back) position while laying on your back. Similarly, the neck needs to be in a perfectly straight position parallel to the rest of your spine while sleeping on your side.
In contrast, the bad pillow on the market lifts the head up and flexes the neck which destabilizes the spine rendering it more susceptible to injury and putting stress on the muscles throughout the night. Furthermore, the bad pillow similarly takes your spine out of the neutral straight alignment while you lay on your side which equally can be injurious, especially when it comes to neck pain caused by pinched nerves.
So how can a pillow support the NECK properly? First, it needs to have the proper design and requires a foam base with proper gentle push back (not memory foam) to keep your spine in alignment when you change positions on average 14-16 times per night. It needs to adapt to you when you sleep. And most importantly, it needs a design engineered by someone (a doctor) who knows the anatomy and physiology of the spine.
Can you image a car being designed by a foam manufacturer? It wouldn’t start or run. This is simply why most pillows on the market do not work; they have been designed by the wrong people. You CAN actually get neck pain from sleeping on the wrong pillow. The proper neck pillow needs to accommodate and support the persons’ neck while they sleep on their side or back.
Since the needed support is so very different, this requires TWO different sleep surfaces. It requires a semi-circular neck support under the neck and a proper lift support of the head that raises the head to the proper neutral height. It also requires an elevated but flat side panel with a shoulder cut out to raise the head AND neck while in the side sleeping position. This supports the head and neck in the neutral position while you are on your side.
How do you put these two critical positions together in one pillow? And let’s consider the best pillow material and certainly look to the best pillow reviews. I think you’ll find everything you might dream of by looking at the patented cervical pillow design at www.PILLO1.com. It has everything in one pillow that I have just written about and it has been referred to as the best pillow ever made.
If you are one of the 63% of Americans that side sleep ONLY, you need a neck pain pillow side sleeper. I have a patent pending design for you as well. The PILLO1 SIDE SLEEPER pillow for side sleeping that I have designed allows you to sleep on your right or left side while maintaining your perfect spinal alignment. This is obtained by offering (just like the original PILLO1) three different sizes to accommodate your size and build. In the final section, let’s discuss the other two major factors of neck pain, stress and arthritis.
Stress causes several things to happen and it begins with the release of stress hormones. The three primary stress hormones are Adrenaline (epinephrine), Norepinephrine and Cortisol. All three are produced by the adrenal gland. Adrenaline and Norepinephrine have very similar actions. They are both considered “Fight or Flight Hormones” as they basically prepare our body’s for “battle” or a stressful situation. They do things like increase your heart rate, give you a surge of energy, increase your focus and attention and shift blood flow from the skin and other organs to the muscles you need to run, jump and use to avoid danger and stress.
One can clearly see that when it comes to the spine and “triggers” that can increase tension, inflammation and prolonged tightness, these two alarm hormones can play havoc with our stress levels commonly causing neck and back pain as well as many other issues.
The third stress hormone, cortisol, deserves to almost be in a category of its own as it takes a little longer to react and respond to the stress of the situation and has several steps that need to occur to get the right message from the brain, releasing messenger hormones such as CRH and ACTH to finally tell the adrenals to produce the hormone cortisol. Furthermore, this hormone if maintained in the proper amounts/level actually can help maintain fluid balance and blood pressure as well as improve your immune system and digestion.
The problem arises when we have too much chronic stress which puts the cortisol levels in an override throttle position and actually it almost throws your body into reverse having the opposite effects such as INCREASING your blood pressure, suppressing the immune system, decreasing libido and increasing our bodies sugar levels.
The third cause of neck pain is from Arthritis. Some types of arthritis are inflammatory in nature and others are simply degenerative in nature. The most common arthritis in the human body is degenerative joint disease (DJD) but it also goes by the names of degenerative arthritis and osteoarthritis. DJD affects over 27 million Americans.
It begins with the wearing down of the smooth, rubbery, shock absorbing material in our joints called cartilage. It can affect almost every joint in our body but most commonly is produced by wear and tear, and thus will affect the primary weight bearing and stressed joints in our bodies such as the knees, hips, shoulders and also very prevalent in our necks and spine.
The wearing down of the cartilage and the discs of our spines leads to further deleterious changes such as bone remodeling and arthritic spurs, both which can severely compromise the health of our nervous system and lead to pain and dysfunction.
The key to any health problem in our bodies is PREVENTION. Since DJD is primarily a consequence of prolonged and repetitive stress, we need to look at how we can avoid stressful positions of our spines and optimize our longevity and health. Having the proper neck support while you sleep one-third of your life is a very reasonable and productive measure in prevention of arthritis and other stress-producing factors in our lives.
So start with PROPER neck support. It will help you live a more productive life. I sincerely hope this blog gives you a deeper understanding and a sort of “best pillow guide” to make a good, proper and educated choice in finding the best pillow for neck pain relief. For more information on my sleep inventions, please go to PILLO1.com and JUSTSLEEPbeds.com.
Dr. Raymond Hall