When pillows become a pain in the neck
Do you find it difficult to get to sleep at night? Are you tossing and turning? Do you wake up with headaches or feeling stiff in your neck or low back? Do various parts of your body hurt while you’re lying down?
Your sleeping arrangement could be the culprit. We spend about 1/3 of our lives asleep. The quality and set-up of your mattress and pillows can either support your body or harm it. You can either make or break progress during your healing journey out of pain.
If your sleeping arrangement is currently not set up correctly, don’t panic. Most of the time, it is very easy to improve the way your pillow or mattress is supporting you.
We are here to help
Our patients frequently ask us for advice on what kind of pillow to buy or which mattress to invest in. We always aim to give the best possible advice for YOUR body, for YOUR sleeping position, and for YOUR journey back to health. Our main goals are to make your Unwinding journey as comfortable as possible, and to ensure that your body is making steady progress without any set-backs. We also understand that buying a new mattress can mean a significant financial investment. Therefore, we make recommendations that provide the best possible solution for your body, while keeping the cost as low as possible.
What is the correct pillow height?
Learn from one of our dear colleagues in the US.
If you came to see us with acute or severe pain, it is crucial that you follow these steps during the initial phase of your care. Sleeping on an unsupportive mattress or pillow can greatly increase the pain levels and cause unnecessary suffering!
Side-sleeping: the best position for your body
Scientists are constantly studying why we sleep, and how we can get a good night’s rest. One of the functions of sleep is to enable your brain to process waste products. Your brain cleans itself while you sleep. In 2015, scientists discovered that this process works best when we sleep on our side.
Side-sleeping is also the healthiest position for your spine. If your mattress is the right firmness, it supports your spine and your body overall. If your pillow is the right height, your body can relax and fall asleep without trouble in less than a minute. You won’t move during the night and will wake up in the same position and you will be wide awake almost immediately and feeling refreshed.
What to look for in a bed base
The base of your bed should be firm. The firmer the better. A firm divan base is good. If your base is slatted, the slats need to be flat. Flat means horizontal, not shaped in any way that promises to “mould” itself to your body. The slats themselves should be firm. Again, the firmer the better.
Finding the right mattress: why to avoid Memory Foam
A good mattress will support the spine. This means the mattress should be firm – very very firm. The body should not sink into it but be supported by it. Unfortunately, a lot of mattresses are advertised as “moulding” themselves to your body.
Most likely, you came into our office because you are suffering from some form of pain in your body – whether it be back pain or headaches or neck/shoulder pain or low back pain. This is because your spine has twisted up . Its alignment will have changed gradually over time and in ways which your body can’t fix by itself. This puts pressure on various points where there shouldn’t be any. Joints got stuck, muscles got stiff, tissue got irritated – and now things hurt. To put things bluntly, your body is screwed up – otherwise you wouldn’t be in pain and you wouldn’t have come to our office in search of relief.
Any of the mattresses that promise to mould themselves to your body basically hold your body in a misaligned, or screwed-up position. They simply don’t offer enough support. From our experience, sleeping on memory foam mattresses or toppers can aggravate existing problems. We are not big fans of these mattresses, and our patients who use these mattresses experience slower progress with more set-backs. The firmer the mattress, the better. In fact, most of our practitioners have at one point or another in their lives spent time sleeping on the floor to allow their bodies to heal properly.
If you are in doubt as to whether your mattress is the culprit behind your current symptoms, why not try sleeping on the floor for a few nights (on correctly set up pillows, of course). If you notice a big difference, chances are your current mattress is not doing its job properly. You don’t have to believe our claims about bad mattresses – you can easily test them for yourself. Use a folded-over duvet or a simple camping mat and try sleeping on the floor for a few nights.
Latex is the way to go
From our experience, latex gives the best support to a person’s spine. We recommend using mattresses made from 100% latex. No springs, no pockets, no orthopaedic anything. Just 100% latex. While these can be full-size mattresses, what we have found from our own experience is this: often an 8cm/3inch mattress topper is enough. Put it on your divan base or your slatted base.
It may be a good idea to put some 18mm plywood (MDB board) on top of the slats or divan base for extra support. Then put the 8cm/3inch latex topper on top. This solution sounds like it may be uncomfortably hard. But most of our team use these mattress toppers for themselves and their families. More and more of our patients are following suit and they report that they find them super comfortable. And that their pains and aches are disappearing faster.
Here’s a link to the company we recommend, Latex Sense. We don’t make any money by recommending them. However, if you decide to go for one of their mattresses or toppers, talk to us. We have a special code to use at checkout, which gives our patients a 10% discount. You will end up getting a product that breaks neither your body nor the bank!
The specific product we recommend is this one:
Figuring out correct pillow height
When you lie on your side, the space between the mattress and your head needs to be fully supported. This will give your head and neck proper support and ensure the correct alignment of your spine.
Your head and neck need to be aligned with YOUR spine, not some ideal version of what somebody thinks a “standard human spine” should look like. None of us have “standard human spines”. We all have twists in our spines from falls, accidents, or just bad lifestyle habits. Your head and neck need to be aligned with YOUR specific spinal twists.
Most pillows are soft and squishy and don’t give enough support. So people often keep piling them on top of each other. When you use one or two standard pillows, you can either increase or decrease the pillow height by … the thickness of a standard pillow. However, the correct height varies from person to person precisely because of the reasons explained above.
It is super easy to build a custom-height pillow that’s right for YOUR body. Again, the goal here is to provide support to your body, not to break the bank. Find out below how to build your own pillow, using a stack of bath towels. Alternatively, we give you a link to an existing product, should you want something that’s a bit more reminiscent of a standard pillow.
- Grab a stack of bath towels. You will need about four of them.
- Lie on your side.
Start with only one layer of towel, i.e. WAY low. Notice how this feels. Breathe in, breathe out, relax your entire body, including your eyes. Because it will be too low, your eyes will pop open when you relax. The reason is that the twist of not being properly aligned will pull on your eyelids and eye muscles and your eyes open. Your eyes may flutter but this is simply your eyes trying to stay open and you trying to keep them shut.
Then grab an entire stack of towels, fold them over several times, and go WAY high. Notice how this feels by contrast. Breathe in, breathe out, relax your entire body, including your eyes. Again, your eyes will stay open or flutter because the pillow is not the correct height for your body.
Here’s how to find the correct height for YOUR body:
- Spread your thumb and forefinger in an L-shape. This is a good starting point. Set up a stack of towels folded roughly to this height.
- Get the body stable first.
- If your head and top shoulder are rolling FORWARD, it means your pillow is too low.
- If your head and top shoulder are rolling BACKWARD, it means your pillow is too low.
- Have another person gently push on your top shoulder to determine whether the stack of towels is the right height. It is correct when your head and shoulders aren’t moving and your body is stable.
- Once your body is stable, fine-tune the exact height by adding/removing one layer of towel at a time. You will find the correct height when you feel yourself relaxing more and more, your blink-rate increases (i.e. your eyes are trying to stay shut and you are trying to open them), and you will feel naturally relaxed and sleepy.
- This is because your spine and especially your neck/head are supported to such an extent that your brain and nervous system can just relax. The twists in YOUR spine are supported in the best possible way. Your brain and brainstem aren’t getting pulled on as much , and this allows you to relax and fall asleep.
- If you find the towels rough on your face, stick them in a pillow case. Or remove the top few layers and replace them with a 1-inch layer of foam (available as scraps at most upholstery shops).
- It is not uncommon for people to need around 20, 25, or close to 30 layers of towel.
If you do sleep on your back:
- You will use much less height than you probably think.
- Use one layer of towel to begin with.
- Notice how it feels: is your head leaning back? Is your face level with the ceiling?
- You want your face to be level with the ceiling.
- Your chin should not get pushed forward into your chest.
- Nor should your head be leaning backwards.
- You have the correct height when your body relaxes, you find yourself blinking more and more as it becomes harder to keep your eyes open. They will naturally close as your brain relaxes and you will be able to get to sleep almost immediately.
See below for some pictures to illustrate what we mean. If you have any questions or run into trouble setting up your towels, talk to your practitioner. We are here to help! Please note though that it can take a couple of weeks to get used to this new setup. Stick with it, your body will thank you. You will speed up the healing process while cutting down on the cost of care.
Top image: ideal height. Body supported and stable, neither rolling forward nor backward.
Middle image: too low. Head and top shoulder rolling forward.
Bottom image: too high. Head and top shoulder rolling backward.
Image courtesy of https://www.straightforwardclinics.com.au.
Sleeping on your back:
Top image: too high. Head gets pushed forward.
Bottom image: correct height. Face level with ceiling.
Image courtesy of https://www.straightforwardclinics.com.au.
If you prefer getting something that resembles a pillow a bit more closely, we can order one for you. This is what we are talking about:
Our colleague Dr Peter Hilgartner has made a video which you may also find helpful when setting up your pillows. Follow the link for more information.
Or talk to your practitioner if you need help.
We can consult you in office on the correct sleeping position for you. This service is free for current patients and £20 for non patients. To schedule please contact us.