By Performance & Recovery Labs, Inc/ PR Labs® / September 23, 2022

Real Pillow Talk

Why your pillow is letting you down

“How old is the pillow you’re currently sleeping on?” I ask most clients as we are
completing their initial intake form. Most pause for a moment and then either shrug
and say half-heartedly, “I don’t know,” or “not that old”. I usually smile and follow up
with “How old IS ‘not that old’?” Commonly the answer to that is one or two years or
they really can’t remember. Yikes. In most situations, for the majority of our clients,
anything more than 8 months is really “too old” to be working well and being useful for
you. There are always exceptions–medical conditions and issues that make what I am
saying null and void. And I know that I run the risk that some statements will provoke
some feelings of frustration and possibly anger. But I am speaking from experience,
both my own and a decade of being a watchful massage therapist. For the record, I am
NOT in cahoots with the pillow manufacturers. However, I have tossed around the idea
of taking my “pillow talk” on the road since this information has helped many of my
clients get a handle on chronic shoulder, neck, and jaw pain.
A few other things that get a lot of clients riled up about is that I am not a fan of down
or buckwheat pillows and I don’t care for expensive pillows. $15 to $20 is all you
should need to spend on a quality pillow that will last you 6-8 months. Now I am a
woman who appreciates a good bargain, and I am very comfortable with the “cost-per-use”
formula (thank you expensive designer jeans) however, in my experience, I have
not come to find any great difference in lifespan between a $50-$150 pillow or my
favorite $15-$20 pillow. Really I promise.
Let’s talk pillows for a moment. Pillows are there to help support the spinal cord, neck
and head. When you lay on your side, your pillow should help keep your spinal column
in a fairly straight alignment and help your head be as perpendicular to your shoulders
as possible. They should also support your neck and head so that weight of your head is
“off” your neck for the hopefully 8-10 hours you’re lying down sleeping. If you are a
side sleeper, think of a plus sign “+”. If you’re lying on your side and your head is
leans more parallel to your shoulders, that’s not a good sign nor is it good for your neck
or shoulders. Basically, it means your neck muscles (and consequently quite a few of
your deeper shoulder muscles) are “firing” (aka working) all night long to support and
control your 8 to 10 pound head. They are getting no recovery or down time to repair
and rest. Now, if this situation happens for one night, it is really not a huge deal.
However, if this posture becomes a pattern over multiple nights over multiple YEARS,
you can end up with chronic neck, jaw and shoulder pain and dysfunction.
I have noticed back sleepers think they are immune to this because they sleep on their
backs “the way nature intended.” Some don’t like any pillow at all or the others like a
little, squishy pillow they can “mold” into a roll behind their head that doesn’t bother
them. While this may work, I still believe you need something supportive to rest the
head and neck muscles so that the deeper neck muscles are not firing to hold the head
still as it turns from side to side throughout the night. So really the above paragraph
applies here too.
I know, I know–at this point you are probably saying to yourself, “So Kate, tell us…
what kind of wonderful, inexpensive pillow DO you suggest?” Okay I am going to lay
it on you.
Step One: In my experience, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls have been the best resource for
well-made, inexpensive pillows that you don’t mind throwing away. Yes, I know, it
pains me too to throw pillows in the garbage, but no one will accept your “gently used
“drool collector” (not even animal shelters). For your own sanity–steer clear of Bed
Bath and Beyond, that pillow department with its two thousand kinds and types of
pillows will leave both you and your wallet dizzy and nauseous.
Step Two: Look for pillows with TWO seams around the outside. Most pillows have
only one. You are looking for the 3D pillow with two seams, sometimes called a
Step Three: Choose a Firm or Extra Firm pillow. Now I know visions of lying down
with your head all jacked-up on this huge, fat pillow are dancing through your mind.
Keep reading. Pick up the pillow and place one hand on either side. If you can feel your
hand through the pillow, but not feel each individual finger, you have found a winner. If
you can feel the fingers easily, put it back and try a more firm pillow. Worst case
scenario, if when you get it home and it’s ridiculously firm, go sit on it while you’re
watching TV, working on the computer, or practicing your meditation. Any of those
should break it in nicely.
Warning: for the first few days that you sleep on this new pillow, you may shake your
fist and say, “Damn you Kate and this pillow!” Please allow 5-7 days before you throw
the pillow in the guest room and go back to your “old” pillow ways.
When you do go back to that old friend, and you will, I bet you will wake the next
morning with that old familiar ache. I want you to march into the guest room with your
“old” pillow and pick up the new one and put down the old one and congratulate
yourself. You have been converted.

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