The cervical tract is the structure most subject to night and morning pain, because the head can remain in rotation for a long time. It is therefore easy to understand the flourishing in recent years of specific products for sleep, in particular the famous orthopedic memory foam pillow for the neck: it is natural that those who feel pain in the morning are naturally inclined to “blame” pillow, mattress or a sleeping position.
There are no standard measures for a pillow, but it is certain that the main function is to support the head and neck, keeping them in line with the spine and for this to happen you need to find the right height and the right consistency to avoid problems of neck and lumbar pain.
The function of the pillow is to support the head, keeping it aligned with the back. Consequently, the height of the pillow can vary according to the hardness of the mattress and the width of the person’s shoulders.
If a mattress is softer, the shoulders will sink further into the mattress and a lower pillow will be needed for the neck to stay aligned with the spine.
Conversely, a slightly firmer mattress, as the shoulders sink less into the mattress, will require a higher pillow that will have to compensate for the space between the head and shoulder to prevent the neck muscles from stiffening on that side. There is no need for strange shapes of pillows and the choice of type depends on the prevailing position one assumes while sleeping.
How pillow affects the cervical and lumbar spine
The right height of the pillow allows the neck to stay in line with the back. A pillow that is too low does not support the head in line with the body, causing strains and contractures not only of the cervical muscles, but also of the lumbar.
A pillow that is too high also causes the head to lose alignment with the back, creating anomalous compensatory curvatures of the back-lumbar spine, which cause discomfort and pain.
There are various forms of pillows and various materials on the market and the choice must be based on the position one assumes when sleeping. Let’s examine some of them.
Memory foam pillow
This pillow is recommended by specialists in orthopedics for alleviating the pain in the neck and other types of cervical discomfort. Thanks to its soft, yet resilient nature, the pillow provides an optimal rest for your head, neck and shoulders.
The benefits of memory foam pillow for neck pain consist in reliable support for the cervical section of your spine. Thanks to its ability to “remember” the shape of your body, it cradles your head gently even as you move in your sleep.
The classic rectangular cushion remains the most used shape
It has the advantage that it does not create particular problems, regardless of the position in which we sleep.
Pillow with central groove
The central groove pillow may work well in the supine potion but is less suitable if you sleep on your side or on your stomach. However, this last position should be avoided except in cases of particular need.
The roll pillow
The roll pillow can be used for short periods, in case of neck pain, as sleeping on the back, allows a slight relaxation of the neck. But be careful that the roll is not too large otherwise it forces the neck to a position of hyper extension. But make sure that the roll is not too large, otherwise it will force the neck to a position of hyper extension.
The double wave asymmetrical cushion can be suitable because it has a shape designed to better adapt to the needs of the person. The two waves, of different heights (photo on the left), give two possibilities to choose the direction of the pillow, depending on the shape of the neck and the sleeping position.
Here are a few simple tips that will guide you in your choice:
The width of the pillow should be approximately one meter, so that it can adapt to the width of your shoulders and to prevent your head from sliding to one side during the night. Have a fair texture so that it can support the head. However, pillows of this size and texture are not easy to find. Unfortunately, smaller pillows (about 70x40cm) and soft are more easily found on the market, as if softness were synonymous with healthy.
If you sleep on your back at night you will need a medium-height pillow to maintain the normal curvature of the neck and the alignment of the head with the body.
A pillow that is too low would favor a hyper extension of the neck with the head which tends to fall on the mattress.
A pillow one too high would force the spinal column to hyperextension and the muscles to maintain an unnatural position which would guarantee you many discomforts upon waking;
If you are in a prone position at night, i.e. on your stomach, you will need a very low pillow to reduce the pressure on your neck and muscle tension.
This position is not recommended, except in special cases, because in addition to forcing the neck into a position of forced rotation, it disturbs the natural curvature of the spine as a compensatory mechanism and prevents regular expansion of the lungs. If you really need to sleep on your stomach it is advisable to remove the pillow.
If you take a side position during the night, you will need a pillow high enough to cover the distance between the shoulder and the ear resting on the pillow.
For those suffering from asthma or allergies, it is necessary to abandon the old wool pillow that is easily colonized by mites. Summarizing the main characteristics of a pillow, it must be easily washable, hypoallergenic, breathable, with a permanent anti-mite system.
If possible, the pillow should be changed every three or five years, and washed every year. However, it must be changed when it loses, due to use, those characteristics of consistency and height that made it suitable.