Neck Pain: It’s Time to Change Your Pillow or the Sleeping Position

Neck pain, also known as cervical pain, is a common complaint in the United States and has many etiologies (causes). Two of the more common reasons are sleeping position or having the wrong pillow, which can be easily resolved with a change in sleeping position or pillow.

Key takeaways:
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    Neck pain can be caused by a poor sleeping position or not having the right pillow.
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    No conclusive studies have been done on sleeping position; however, there is a general opinion that sleeping on your side or back is better than sleeping on your stomach.
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    Numerous types of pillows exist, with the best one varying by individual.
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    Neck pain lasting more than 24 to 48 hours needs to be evaluated by a physician.

The cause of neck pain

The neck has seven cervical vertebrae, and a normal, natural curvature called cervical lordosis. Surrounding and integrated into the vertebrae are muscles, tendons, nerves, and ligaments. An intricate balance allows full, pain-free neck movement.

We have nerves running through our bodies like electrical cables. When the neck muscles become tight, pressure is placed on the nerves, sending signals to the brain, which we interpret as pain. Usually, the tighter the muscles, the more impingement of the nerve and the more pain is perceived.

One of the more frequent causes of neck pain is a poor sleeping position, specifically how the neck is positioned.

What is the best sleeping position to avoid neck pain?

That's a great question, and there is no simple answer for the best position to avoid neck pain. Unfortunately, no scientific studies have concluded which positions are best for neck pain avoidance.

One study published in the British Medical Journal in 2019 sought to answer the question of sleeping position related to spinal pain by performing an extensive literature review of over 4,000 articles. Unfortunately, they found no quality articles or conclusive evidence to answer the question of the best sleeping position to avoid neck pain.

Even though there are no conclusive studies on the best sleeping position to avoid neck pain, the consensus is that sleeping on your stomach is bad, while sleeping on your back or side is better.

sleep position impact on back

In the above image you can see three visuals of a person lying on their side. However, only in the top visual is the person's neck in a neutral position. This top visual is recommended to minimize the risk of neck pain.

In addition to the sleeping position, your choice of pillow is essential in limiting neck pain from sleeping.

What are the different materials used to make pillows?

Any trip to a general merchandise retailer or mattress store will demonstrate the pillows are made of numerous materials. Here’s a list of some of the more common types.

  • Polyester fiberfill (polyfill) are manufactured fibers that are soft and fluffy.
  • Down comes from the feathers of the underbelly of ducks, swans, and geese.
  • Feather pillows are made from ducks and geese wing feathers.
  • Cotton-filled pillows are soft and give a posh feel. These tend to be firmer than down or feather pillows.
  • Memory foam is made from polyurethane, allowing it to conform to the head and neck shape. There are two types of memory foam pillows.
Note
There are two types of memory foam. The solid core (block) memory foam consisting of one solid piece, and shredded memory foam, when a pillow is filled with small cut-up pieces.
  • Latex pillow stuffing is obtained from a sap of a particular rubber tree; thus, they can be expensive.
  • Wool is a traditional stuffing material.
  • Kapok pillow stuffing is from a tree in Mexico.
  • Buckwheat hull pillow stuffing is made from the outer shells of buckwheat seeds. These produce much thicker pillows.

Which pillow is best for you to use?

The answer to the above question is that every person is different. They have their own unique anatomy, and each person could respond differently to the different types of pillows.

Each type of pillow has its pros and cons. The best advice we can give you is to try different kinds until you find which works best. For example, some people respond better to a thicker pillow, while others respond better to a softer pillow. Some pillows absorb heat and may cause you to sweat at night, while others are more breathable.

With full-body pillows, your arm and leg go over the pillow (see image below). These pillows can properly align your neck and lower back, taking pressure off both those areas.

woman sleep with long-pillow

When should you be concerned about neck pain?

If you wake up every morning with neck pain that subsides during the day but then reappears the next morning, we know there's an issue with your sleep positioning.

It's always a good idea to have neck pain evaluated by a physician, especially if it persists longer than 24 to 48 hours. They can obtain X-rays to view the bony structures.

Meningitis occurs when there is inflammation of the meninges: the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The main symptoms include pain, fever, and a stiff neck. Meningitis can be a dangerous condition.

Nerve impingement results from pressure on a nerve root; a spinal disc issue or a tumor are possible causes. With cervical nerve root impingement, neck pain usually radiates to the arms.

At what age do you need to be aware of your sleeping position?

When you’re old enough to be self-aware, it's essential to notice if there are any negative symptoms from sleeping, especially neck pain. Thus, the answer is at any age.

If your kids tell you they have neck pain from certain sleeping positions, we advise you to recommend a different sleep position or pillow.

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