It is natural to blame the pillow or sleeping position when neck pain occurs or worsens in the morning.
To try to solve neck pain, some people spend astronomical sums on the latest generation of pillows but this does not improve their problem by one iota. Others, on the other hand, “collect” dozens of pillows without yet having found one that is right for them.
In this article we will answer the most common questions on the subject: how important is the pillow? What is the best position to sleep in to avoid neck pain?
We will do this by making science talk. Through scientific evidence, we will debunk the most common popular beliefs and provide practical advice to help you make the right choices without wasting money and time on ineffective products.
The neck pillow: does it really work?
When it comes to how to sleep to avoid neck pain, the pillow is the first thing you think about. The manufacturing companies are well aware of this and, every year, offer pillows made of new and increasingly innovative materials, promising fantastic results on the quality of sleep and neck pain.
The reality, however, is not quite as rosy as it is portrayed, and often the promising results that are “loudly” in many advertisements are not based on concrete scientific evidence.
An example of all is the very famous “neck pillow”, that pillow with a wavy shape that is recommended for anyone suffering from neck pain. What is its real effectiveness in preventing neck pain? Quite doubtful, given that there is no scientific study that has tested the various types on the market and given that, as we will see below, the “miraculous” shape of this pillow is no better than its traditional shape.
Pillows compared: the results of a scientific study
Given the circumstances, however, it would be wrong to think that the pillow does not count at all or that there is no better material than another.
In fact, a scientific study has shown that not all pillows are the same. Researchers compared 5 different types of pillows: polyester, regular shaped foam, shaped foam, latex and down.
Each of the 106 participants had to sleep with one type of pillow for a week, then return to their usual pillow the following week (so-called “washout” period). This is the case for the entire duration of the study, which is 10 weeks. Furthermore, the subjects did not know what the pillows were made of.
The result was that the latex pillow significantly decreased neck pain upon awakening, improved sleep quality and the sensation of comfort perceived during the night.
The down pillow, on the other hand, was the most problematic. People without pain were more likely to wake up with pain or that the pain worsened upon awakening. In addition, it was considered by participants to be the worst pillow in terms of sleep quality and comfort, on a par with the molded foam pillow.
The other pillow types did not significantly affect cervical symptoms upon awakening, and there was no difference between the regular-shaped and contoured foam pillows.
Despite the results of this study, it must be taken into account that there are many other factors that contribute to a cervical problem and that not all people can obtain the same results using the same type of pillow.
Supine, prone or on your side: how important is the position in which you sleep?
The position in which to sleep to avoid neck pain is another very thorny topic. Tradition has it that the belly up (supine) and side positions are considered the most suitable for the cervical while the belly down (prone) position is often not recommended.
Based on what one position is recommended over another is still a question mark.
First of all, if you think about it, even if we advised you to sleep on your side, do you think you would really be able to hold this motionless position all night? Probably not. Because our body often changes position at night and does so spontaneously. In fact, it has been shown that under normal conditions a person changes on average from 11 to 13 different positions during the night.
What is more, if you have neck pain due to a certain position, it is logical to think that you would immediately turn around and the pain would disappear. Do not you think?
Finally, there is evidence to support the fact that the prone position is not all that bad for the cervical. In a scientific study, different positions in which participants were used to sleep were compared and it was found that the prone position did not increase the risk of having neck pain upon waking when compared to other positions.
Are you still convinced that sleeping position really matters that much?
The truth is, pillow and position have relative weight for neck pain. What really matters is something else. For example, what you do (or don’t do) during the day can have a huge impact on neck pain.
What you do before falling asleep matters more than what you think
It is very natural to think that the pillow or position is responsible for neck pain upon waking. You fall asleep painlessly, wake up in pain and immediately think it’s something that happens during the night.
What may seem logical, is sometimes not so logical. Have you ever thought that what happens at night is in turn the effect of what happens during the day?
Today, science confirms that most of the causes that lead to neck pain are related to weak muscles and stiff joints. The lack of exercise and the sedentary positions maintained during the day are factors that weaken the cervical muscles and make the joints more rigid, thus contributing to the onset of pain.
In fact, it has been widely demonstrated that specific exercises to strengthen the cervical muscles are able to reduce cervical pain, even that present upon awakening.
The position maintained during the night is, for our body, yet another fixed position that it must endure and which, in the long run, can lead to cervical pain.
It is therefore implied that in order to resolve neck pain and get back to sleep better, it is not only necessary to change what happens at night, but also what we do during the day.
How to reduce neck pain and sleep better: 3 practical tips
To reduce neck pain and sleep better, it is often not enough to simply change pillows or force yourself to sleep in one position rather than another. Instead, it is essential to start exercising your neck properly during the day.
How to do it? Here are 3 practical tips that you can immediately put into practice.
- Avoid maintaining fixed postures for too long during the day
It is a fundamental point. Our body has a great ability to adapt but when it is forced to remain in fixed positions for too long, then aches and pains can arise. This is a rule that we cannot overlook.
On top of that, the sedentary lifestyle that many people adopt certainly doesn’t help.
Hours and hours spent in front of the computer, sitting at a desk, and we expect our body not to tell us anything?
In order to solve this problem, you need to change your habit every day. How? For example, taking small breaks during the working day, standing up and maybe walking. In this way, you avoid that the body remains still for a long time and thus prevent possible pain or discomfort in the neck.
2. Keep your neck mobile with range of motion exercises
In order to feel good, our neck needs to be mobile. As we have seen above, this is crucial because otherwise cervical stiffness can lead to muscle or joint pain that can persist over time.
3. Train your neck with specific strengthening exercises
The last piece of advice we give you is to train the cervical muscles to be stronger. In this way, it will bear the daily efforts better and it will therefore be less likely that there will be pain in the neck.