Ideally, most of us spend a third of our lives in bed. Injuries to the neck and upper back can be caused by poor sleeping positions which, in turn, can be caused by the environment. Uncomfortable body positioning, as well as poor mattress quality, incorrect pillow height and lack of support, are all formulas for aches and pains when you wake up.
Image from APTA
I think it's important to discuss sleeping posture and how you can use pillows to protect your neck and upper back while you're catching z's. Since sleep is my favorite hobby, especially now that COVID has hit, I have investigated this topic thoroughly and offer the following advice to all of my patients.
Depending on your sleeping position you will need to find the perfectly sized pillow. If you sleep on your back, you always want to "fill in the gaps" between your neck, shoulders, upper and lower back with a properly sized pillow and towels. Your neck should rest in a straight line like it is when you are standing up straight. This position is called neutral spine. The pillow you use (I highly recommend 100% goose down feather pillows in medium-firm) should sit right between your shoulder blades to support the entire neck and keep your head in good alignment.
You may also want to use a folded hand towel under your lower back for lumbar support. I especially recommend folding two bath towels to position underneath the shoulder and down the arm to support those with neck and shoulder pain. And last but certainly not least, grab two extra pillows to put underneath your knees to allow for a slight leg bend!
If you like to sleep on your side, you will also need to fill in the gap from the side of your head to your shoulder. For example, I have little to no curvature in my neck. A standard memory foam pillow is too big for my head and neck. Before I knew that a normal sized generic brand was not the right pillow for me, I found myself constantly waking up with a stiff and sore neck and back. You can fold a down feather pillow in half to achieve this if you like feather pillows like I do!
You'll also want a down feather pillow to lay on top of that supports your rib cage. A pillow between your legs that runs along your inseam all the way to your ankles is the cherry on top for hip support!
What's great about feather pillows is that they contour to your body without providing too much push back. If you find that you like a more firm pillow, most brands make them in many different firmnesses and sizes. Try them out and see which one will work with you and your body.
Try out my side sleeping and back sleeping postures and see if they work for you. Remember that every body and mattress is different so adjust to what feels good for you. You may need thicker towels to fill in space if you have a very firm mattress. Contrarywise, you may not need extra support in areas if your bed forms more to your body.
Try and get some rest during this crazy time in the world and stay healthy!
Dr. Justin C. Lin