The Need for a Better Pillow
By Natalie Weintraub, LMT

Step one: Establish a need for a better pillow

Now that I don’t spend the majority of my day in an ergonomically maximized cubicle, I need to be more aware of my neck. Massage therapy is hard on the body – it’s truly the blue collar job of the healthcare industry – but after a few months I seemed to be taking it especially hard. My neck and shoulders were in constant distress, and no amount of self-massage or chiropractic adjustments could do the trick.

A lot of my clients come to me with tight neck muscles. It’s a common problem. Much of the cause comes from posture, emotional stress, or just day to day living, but quite a bit of it stems from the physical strain placed on the neck when sleeping. Unfortunately, the way we sleep and the pillows we use are often contrary to what our body needs.

It took some time, but what I had been telling clients about sleep started to ring true to my own situation. Here I was, waking up every morning in pain. Maybe it wasn’t me; maybe the real problem was with my pillow.

Step two: Accept that a decent pillow is not a luxury item

I had never thought about my pillow much, but I should have. My pillow was at least three years old, and it hadn’t been great quality to begin with. It was an inexpensive means to a predicable end: I was going to fall asleep every night no matter what, so the quality of my pillow wasn’t a big deal, right? Wrong.

Think about your pillow. How old is it? What is it made of? Does it support your neck? Is there an appreciable difference between sleeping on your pillow and sleeping directly on your mattress?

If you’re unsure of what a better pillow would do, try this tonight when you get in bed: roll up a hand towel and place it under your neck for extra support. How do you feel in the morning? Is your neck less sore? Did you sleep better?

Step two point five: Stop sleeping face-down

Granted, the pillow under the neck trick doesn’t work for stomach sleepers. Are you a stomach sleeper? Don’t be.

Think about your neck for a moment. It’s most comfortable in a neutral position, neither rotated nor bent, right? Think about the position of your body in when you sleep on your stomach. Your neck is stuck in rotation for 6-8 hours at a time! It’s no surprise your muscles can be so angry in the morning.

I was a stomach sleeper until last year, after I found myself constantly berated by teachers at massage school. How did I finally break the habit? Training. I’d lie in bed on my side right up until I was about to fall asleep, at which point I’d flip onto my stomach. After a few months I had made myself comfortable enough with lying on my side that I could last the night. Trust me, it’s a challenge worth taking.

Step three: Weigh your options

It’s time to find a solution. Take a look at what’s out there. Honestly, there are a ton of pillow types nowadays, so you may have to sift through quite a bit to find what works best for your neck and your budget. The internet has a wealth of information and good deals, but I suggest going to at least one store first to get a feel for your options.

As for me, I wound up spending a good bit of money on a memory foam contour pillow. But it wasn’t a splurge, it was an investment in my health. The difference in neck support (and subsequent sleep quality and tension relief) is enormous.

Sleep is supposed to be relaxing, replenishing. If you wake up sore, something’s not right. Maybe your best bet for now is to stick with a rolled-up towel for neck support, and put that top quality pillow on your wish list. But even that extra little effort will go a long way to help make your sleep as restful as possible.