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Healthy Outlook: Choosing the right pillow doesn't have to be a nightmare

Save yourself a pain in the neck

I’m a strong proponent of fixing things when they’re wrong.

I believe there’s little to be gained from allowing something to make you unhappy or stress you out simply because you “don’t have time” to fix it, or because it’s perhaps easier to just let it slide. That’s why I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions: why wait to make your life better, rather than start right now?

That said, I have no explanation for why it took me so long to buy a new pillow.

For months — maybe even a year — I’ve had recurring neck and shoulder pain. I’ve consistently attributed it to stress, because it worsens substantially as my stress level does. It finally dawned on me this week that although stress likely played a role, the real culprit was literally under my nose (and the rest of my face) the whole time.

My silly old flat pillow lacked the necessary oomph to hold my head up high enough to keep my spine from misaligning. Night after night, I struggled to find a comfortable way to sleep; day after day, I awoke sore and much less chipper than I ought to be.

Finally, I got the idea to try a more firm, fluffy pillow, and it worked wonders. I fell asleep almost immediately and woke up feeling like I’d never experienced months of neck pain. After a bit of research, I discovered what perhaps should’ve been obvious: as a side sleeper, I need a firm pillow with some depth.

Dr. Jeremy Rodrock, of Rodrock Chiropractic at 412 Ames St. in Baldwin City (and whose wife Dr. Amelia Rodrock runs the Lawrence location, at 1440 Wakarusa Drive), said he has patients ask him once or twice a week about pillows.

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Dr. Jeremy Rodrock, of Rodrock Chiropractic

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Side sleepers like me need a pillow that keeps you “head neutral,” Rodrock said, so your head's in line neutrally with your shoulders. The National Sleep Foundation calls this “neutral alignment,” where your head rests squarely on your shoulders as it would when you stand with good posture.

“If your pillow's too flat, that's going to put excess stress on your neck and shoulders, and also being too large, laying on your side, it can do the same thing,” Rodrock said.

For back sleepers, Rodrock said, a pillow that’s too large will put your head forward and pull on the muscles in your neck all night. Back sleepers should go with a thinner pillow, according to the NSF, and one that has a bit more “loft” — aka height — in the neck area.

Stomach sleepers: as you might have already guessed, I don’t have good news for you, and you probably won’t want to hear it. (My mother used to be a stomach sleeper — I know how stubborn you folks can be.)

Rodrock said sleeping on your stomach can cause a lot of stress to the neck as well as the lower back. If stomach sleepers are using a pillow, “it's twisting the neck and then putting it into a lateral, or side, flexion, so it's jamming everything in the neck all night,” he said.

“So what I'll recommend is to try to break the habit, which is very hard,” he said, “or to sleep with a very thin — or no — pillow, and then to actually tuck a pillow under your stomach to support your low back.”

So, how do you know when a pillow is right for you?

“It’s really tough,” Rodrock said, “but manufacturers are making it a little bit easier.”

He said oftentimes now, firmer, thicker pillows will be labeled as “side-sleepers,” and thinner or softer ones as “back-sleepers.” But he said most of the time, he suggests a memory foam pillow. He said chiropractors, physical therapists and other health care professionals can fit you for a high-quality memory foam pillow to make sure it’s the right one for you. In general, those will range from $90-$130, he said.

“If you're working on correction and solving a problem, (memory foam is) the best pillow,” he said. “I'll also recommend a down or feather pillow because you can manipulate that quite a bit and get in a comfortable position with that pillow.”

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For those with chronic neck issues, Rodrock said it can be good to rotate pillows.

"Once in a while, like in your case where your neck and shoulder was bothering you, you may need a pillow that helps support you and helps you heal,” Rodrock told me. “Then you'll find as things start feeling better, you'll go through a period of time and all of a sudden you're getting a new soreness in the neck, and you may actually have to think about using another pillow.”

He said there’s no set way to rotate your pillow. “Everyone's a little different — you just have to kind of experiment a little bit." You should also replace standard pillows every 12-18 months, he said, because of bacteria that can grow in them; higher-priced pillows generally have a warranty of three years.

Also, he highly recommends trying a pillow out before you buy it — in a mattress store, for instance, try lying on a pillow for 15 to 20 minutes to get a better idea of how well it will work for you.

So if you’ve been waking up with neck pain, now is the time to join me in replacing your pillow. Carpe diem, and carpe cervicalia! (Seize the day, and seize the pillows!)

About Healthy Outlook

Healthy Outlook is a column written by Journal-World reporter and Health section editor Mackenzie Clark, in hopes of helping readers make their lives a little bit happier, healthier and more active.

Have questions about the world of health and wellness in Lawrence, or a health story idea? Contact Mackenzie:
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