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Oh The Pillow… the pillow!

Selecting a pillow is one difficult task.  I have had patients tell me stories of having entire linen closets full of their attempts at finding pillow luxury, only to be failed attempts leading to a side business of pillow wholesaling.  Mattresses can be the same, its just that there aren’t too many people stashing the “wrong” mattress in a closet somwhere in the house.

But you know what I am talking about.  You can test a pillow at the store, squish it, fluff it, lay your head sideways on it while its still in its packaging, and eventually come to the belief that you have found the perfect pillow, only to discard it to “the” linen closet after a few nights use.  It took me years to find my pillow, and then recently it seemingly turned on me.  After 7 years of love, it had found its way to the top shelf of the linen closet.

So what goes into finding the right pillow, and why would the right pillow go wrong at some point?  Well, it first starts with your sleeping habits.  The poisition you sleep certainly has the greatest impact on what pillow is right, or wrong for you.  And arguably, sleeping on your back is the absolute best position for your spine… but how about your breathing?  It is thought that almost 70% ofadults will snore throughout the night when on their backs, and I agree, I have seen it thanks to my years in collegiate hockey (4 players to a room) and overnight stays before an adventure race (not naming names here Andy).

But, research has also shown that if you put somone on their back, on the right pillow, that the snoring will go away.  I have slept for years ona very thin, and soft pillow.  It has about 3” of thickness in the middle of it, with two curves, one that reaches about 6” og thickness, and the other that is about 4 ½” of thickness.  So soft though, that both sides compress to about half their thickness when you lie on it.  This pillow has served me well as a back sleeper, for many, many years.  But why not now?

Well, as many of you know, I have some beat up shoulders.  Hockey has left its mark on me, and four shoulder separations on my right, and three on my left, has had a considerable impact on the comfort that I can achieve with my shoulders.  About 17 months ago, I hurt my right shoulder in consecutive months with a rotator cuff injury, followed by a mountain bike fall, that misaligned my shoulder girdle.  Sure enough, it was about four months later that I started to dislike my pillow.  I found that my neck would bother me in the night, my arm would be throbbing, and sometimes my hand would fall asleep.

Back sleeping became uncomfortable, and right side sleeping unbearable, so I had to move to mostly left side sleeping with some back sleeping, and occasionally a stomach position (not at all receommended for adults).  In so doing, my ultra thin pillow became too thin.  Though great for back sleeping because it allows the neck to maintain the cervical curve, and it opens the airway for normal breathing, it was causing my head to tilt/angle too much on my side.  This was hurting my sleep, and my shoulder all the same.

So I moved to a feather pillow with more thickness, but the ability to be squished down to nothing.  This new pillow helped me achieve full nights of sleep, and to quickly get to a place where I could comfortably sleep through the night without shoulder pain.  My arm was better, and life was good; until…

The shoulder was finally getting to full resolution.  Suddenly my neck longed for a new position, and my arm was no longer an issue.  I wanted to sleep on my back, but this feather pillow wouldn’t let me.  Too thick.  So it was just a few weeks ago that I pulled out the old pillow again, and man it was beautiful.  Life restored!

So how do you pick a pillow?  Well, you should try to train yourself onto your back, it might take some time, but it is worth it.  Then go for a thin pillow (there have been many vacations were I failed to bring my pillow, so I have simply slept without one), one that allows your head to be positioned looking straight up, not forward.  An orthopedic curve helps, as it follows the arc of your cervical spine (reminder – this is referred to as the arc of life because it is so important).

If you see side sleeping as your only ally, then make sure the pillow can support the space between your head and the mattress.  A pillow that will contour with you is good, but honestly, I think the old fashoined feather pillow works best for side sleeping.  Be prepared for some time to get used to a pillow, I wouldn’t discard it until you have had at least three weeks of effort trying to get used to it.

So… why this pillow talk?  Well, I am returning from Buffalo, where I just drove my family to spend time with my extended family.  I packed my thin curved pillow, to make sure I had some good sleep.  Well, I never told my wife I had packed my pillow, so she happened to pack the feather pillow that I had been using for the last year… leaving me with none of my favored choices at home!  I will be in town for only three nights, as I leave late Thursday night to return.  I think I can handle it, but it is surely on my mind!

Be well, sleep tight – Dr. E

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