In most newspapers and magazines you come across adverts for pillows to ‘help get rid of your neck pain’ or ‘sleep better with our pillows’ etc etc. and some of these pillows are quite expensive.
These pillows can be made of rubber, foam, memory foam, feathers, springs or wheat and often have a ridge along one edge for you to lie on – see picture on the left. The idea of this is that the normal curve in your neck (lordosis – see figure below) will then be supported if you lie on your back and so pressure will be taken off the joints, muscles and ligaments that is thought to happen if you lie on a flat surface.
So how can you be sure that you will be better off if you spend money on a shaped pillow – will it really reduce neck pain or will your neck be ‘better supported’ when you are lying in bed as these adverts claim?
Neck pain is a huge part of what we treat as chiropractors, with great success. Neck pain can adversely affect the quality of your life, productivity at work, and sleep quality. Neck problems can give rise to headaches or arm pain, tingling and numbness. Sitting in front of a computer or looking down at your mobile phone reverses the normal forward curve of the neck, which puts strain on all of the structures of your neck and can give rise to pain – see picture below of a neck ‘stuck in a torticollis – bent to one side.
We know that treatment of the neck joints, muscles and ligaments can reduce neck and arm pain but does research really demonstrate that using a particular pillow can help – either by reducing neck pain itself both during the day or at night when you are trying to sleep, reducing waking pain or the alignment of your neck?
Recent studies of all of the best quality research papers of the past years has been undertaken to try to find answers.
Thirty-five articles fulfilled the inclusion criteria of the study. There were nine high-quality studies involving 555 participants. The meta-analysis revealed significant differences favouring the use of rubber pillows to reduce neck pain.
Also, waking pain and neck disability were both reduced while the satisfaction rate was enhanced with pillow use.
However, the actual design of the pillow did not influence sleep quality in patients with chronic neck pain.
The conclusion to be drawn from this study is that the use of spring pillows and rubber pillows are effective in reducing neck pain, waking symptoms, and disability and enhancing pillow satisfaction in patients with chronic neck pain but a pillow does not necessarily need to be of any particular shape to achieve this help. A pillow may help you to feel more comfortable at night but if you have neck pain, a pillow on its own is unlikely to relieve the pain so better to discuss with one of the chiropractors first!
There may well be no actual change in the alignment of the neck in the side-lying position, regardless of the use of rubber or feather pillows but an ideal pillow should be soft with good support for the neck.