While your mattress is likely the biggest investment in your bedtime routine, your pillow is an important and often neglected component of a good night’s sleep. According to Harvard Medical School, the path to regular neck pain upon waking begins with a lack of awareness about how your head, neck, and back are resting on your pillow.
What does ‘bad pillow posture’ look like?
Putting pressure on your upper back, shoulders, and spine increases the risk of neck injury and pain. The worst position for spinal pressure is—perhaps counterintuitively—sleeping on your stomach. This is because your back is forced to arch, while your neck has to spend the entire night turned to one side.
Unfortunately, the way sleep is often determined by early-life habits, so if you are a stomach sleeper, you may not be inclined to switch things up. The University of Rochester recommends that stomach sleepers use a flat pillow, placed under the hips to help address arching and pressure. Likewise, opt for a head pillow that’s low and flat, or perhaps no pillow at all.
Bad pillow posture also has a vicious cycle relationship with sleep itself. Studies have confirmed that the less sleep you get, the more that neck pain can become an issue. (Likewise, the more neck pain you have, the less sleep you’re likely to get!) A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine also found that associations between sleep quality and chronic neck pain can be confounded by a genetic predisposition to neck injury.
What does ‘good pillow posture’ look like?
There are two main sleeping positions widely regarded as neck-friendly. These are sleeping on your side, and sleeping on your back. These postures promote the most neutral alignment of the neck and spine—so long as your pillow is not messing with that balance! A stiff pillow can keep the neck tensed during the night, however good your posture.
Back sleepers should bear in mind that the neck might be overextended if your pillow is too high, so go for a pillow that follows the natural curve of your neck. For a super-supportive fit, try adding a small neck roll pillow into your pillowcase, along with a regular flat pillow (or purchase a bespoke orthopedic pillow that combines the two).
For side sleepers, you’re looking a neutral alignment all the way from the top of the head down to the hips. Everyday Health recommends the following quick test for striking that balance: the right pillow will just fill the space between your ear and your mattress, without tilting your head.
Good pillow posture also extends to good posture more generally. With the average head weighing around eleven pounds, a strong core will help to keep the spine, neck, and shoulders aligned. The better support your head and neck receive throughout the day, the less likely you’ll go to bed with weakened or fragile muscles.
When was the last time you replaced your pillow? If you can’t remember, it’s time for a new one!
Experiencing neck pain right now? Try some (cautious) neck stretches.
WebMD recommends the following stretches for those experiencing stiffness or soreness in the neck and shoulders. Importantly, if you experience any additional pain or sharpness while stretching, then stop immediately! If pain persists for multiple days, consider a consultation with a healthcare professional.