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How to find your Beauty Sleep…

marie catherine bruno owner of the sole mate

Or, the art of choosing the right pillow.

By Marie-Catherine Bruno, BScPT, Cped(C).

Did you know that more than 60% of the people suffering from chronic neck pain often have simply injured themselves while sleeping? And you thought running was a dangerous sport!

It all makes sense when you think of it: the average person sleeps 6-7 hours a night, 7 days a week. That counts for almost a third of your total lifetime. Now let’s see: how much money did you invest in your bed? How much time did you spend choosing the right pillow? When was the last time you treated yourself to a nice pillow? I am sure (well, I would hope) that after you finish reading this month’s column, you will take a look at your current sleeping situation, and make the necessary changes…after all, it’s a third of your life that you could improve on.

The bed

The type of bed you have chosen can be a contributing factor to morning stiffness and feeling groggy. A mattress should be firm enough to support you, but soft enough to not cause excessive pressure on the skin and muscles. A good rule of thumb is to avoid futon mattresses as they are usually made of shredded fabric, lacking good absorption qualities (too firm). Cheap waterbeds are usually also a threat for your spine, but for the opposite reason: they are too soft and they create too much shearing (the anti-wave is a really important feature in reducing shearing forces). So make sure that your bed offers you the appropriate support and comfort factor.

Sleeping Position and Choosing the Correct Pillow

There is no ultimate sleeping position, other than trying to limit the damage done to your spine at night (as much as possible). Ideally you want to keep your spine in its most natural position, respecting and supporting its normal curves. Depending on how you are lying down, you may potentially be increasing those curves, or flattening them out. You could even possibly be causing some torsion and shearing forces, which are also quite destructive for your spine. The pillow plays a very important role in keeping your spine in line. Once again, a pillow that is too firm and voluminous can cause as much damage as can a pancake kind of pillow. Before choosing a pillow, you must know whether you spend most of the night on your back or on your side. If you usually sleep on your stomach, you should start thinking about getting rid of this bad habit; when you lie on your stomach, the only way you can keep breathing is to turn your head to the side. It cannot be that you will say, since it does not hurt. Well then, perform this very easy test: sit in front of the TV and turn your chair so that you are perpendicular to the TV set. Turn your head so that you can see the screen. See how much time you can endure this rather akward position… then think about spending a full night in that position. Convinced now?!!!

How to chose the appropriate pillow for you:

  • I sleep on my back: In movies, you always see princesses rest on a pile of pillows – it hurts me just to watch! Thick pillows when lying on your back bring your neck and upper thoracic region in way too much flexion, opening the back of the spine and overstretching a lot of soft tissues (see Figure 1). To keep your spine in a more natural position, you need a fairly thin pillow that will barely lift your head off the bed, so that you are looking at the ceiling. If you can see your toes, your pillow is a bit too thick!! (Figure 1 vs Figure 2) You also want a pillow that will support the natural curve of your neck; when you run your hand on the back of your head, you can appreciate how once you reach the bottom of your head it curves to the inside – this is called the lordosis of the cervical spine. So before you go to sleep, pack your pillow just under your neck to give it more support, as in Figure 2.
  • I sleep on my side: Sleeping on your side is a bit trickier as it requires a much thicker pillow, and they do not come along easily. You pretty much need a pillow that is as thick as the distance from your neck to the tip of your shoulder. The wider your shoulders, the thicker the pillow. When your pillow is too thin, your head drops into the pillow, creating a side curve (or a kink) in your neck (Figure 3). This is just as bad as watching a movie with your head on your partner’s shoulder, except that you are doing it for 7 hours straight! Once you have found a thick enough pillow, pack it a bit under your neck so that area gets more support (your neck should be narrower than your head), as in Figure 4.
  • I roll around: As you can probably appreciate, the thickness of the pillow is going to be an issue if you go from lying on your back to lying on your side. Some people compensate for the thin pillow by putting their arm under the pillow when they roll to the side. The problem is that it tends to make your shoulders a little unstable and prone to tendonitis and other nasty injuries. If on the other hand your pillow is thick enough for sidelying, then it will for sure be too thick for lying on your back! A few years ago I would have said that there was no answer for you, but they have now developed a water pillow that might be just right for you. See Make your own pillow below.

Note: A good way to ensure that your alignment is satisfactory is to have someone else take a look at you. Make sure that if you are on your back your head is as straight as it would be if you were standing up. If you sleep on your side, then your eyes should be aligned vertically.

Make your own pillow

There is a plethora of pillows on the market. I tend to prefer synthetic ones over down as they do not pack out as much overnight. Unless you intend to wake up many times a night to fluff it up, go for synthetic materials.
Orthopaedic pillows (the ones with bumps) can offer ideal support to your spine, as long as your neck matches the curves of the pillow perfectly. Some offer too small of a curve to sleep on your side, so you might have to stack it up on top of a regular thin pillow. Be aware.

The new trend is now to water pillows. They are usually made of a water pouch situated under a regular pillow. The beauty if them is that as you move, the water follows and always goes where there is less pressure, offering constant and adequate support to you neck. You can adjust the firmness and thickness by adding or removing water. They are ideal for people that move around a lot or cannot find an orthopaedic pillow for their neck.

If all of the above fails, or if you are not decided on the type of pillow yet, why not create your own orthopaedic pillow and save some bucks? Take a small towel and turn it into a little roll. Slide it in your pillowcase, and bring it down to the edge of the pillow (along its length). Flip your pillow over so that the roll is now underneath (it makes it a bit more comfortable!). You can now customize the bump to your own neck by using thinner or thicker towels. Figure 2 and 4 illustrate where to position the roll and how thick to make it.

Sweet dreams now!