How to Determine if Your Pillow/Mattress is Right for You

Last Saturday night I celebrated 5280 Restaurant Week for the first time with dear friends. For those who live outside of the Denver area, Restaurant Week is a time of year when many local restaurants offer a special deal on a prearranged menu ($52.80/couple or $26.40/individual). It’s a great way to try out some of the more high end ($$+ in Zagat) places around town for a slightly more affordable price. Having lived here for 7.5 years, I figured it was about time I fork out the dough (pun intended) and join the masses. So Saturday night found my friends and I at Rodizio Grill, a Brazilian steakhouse that is now in my top 3 favorite places in Denver. Without getting into too much detail (because the restaurant itself has nothing to do with this post), let me just say that my experience involved everything I love about Thanksgiving dinner (which is my favorite meal of the year)–quality time with loved ones, laughter and story-telling, copious amounts of delicious food without end, plus not having to clean dishes after the meal!

How does Brazilian food relate to pillows and mattresses–except that we all looked forward to sleeping soundly with full bellies afterward? During dinner I was talking with two of my friends (Amanda and Zach) about different types of pillows. Since I’ve answered this question for many patients, I thought it’d be a good post for you in case you’ve wondered the same thing.

Question: What is the best mattress/pillow?
Answer: One that supports the spine and head.
Questions: What the heck does that mean?
Answer: read on…

How to Find Out if You Have an Appropriate Pillow

Lie on your side and have a friend/family member look at your spine (imagine a line down the middle like in the picture below). A good mattress/pillow combination should put your spine relatively horizontal or perpendicular to the floor.
Take a look then at the head and neck. If the crown of your head is higher than your spine, chances are your pillow is too full.

If the crown of your head is lower than your spine, your pillow is too flat.

You can also roll up a towel and stick it in the bottom of your pillowcase for added support of the lower neck where it meets the upper back. (Putting the towel inside the pillowcase helps it to stay in place if you’re the type of sleeper that rolls around a lot at night.)

You can also apply these same techniques if you’re a back sleeper–just have your friend/family member draw an imaginary line from your ears down to your hips. Ideally, that line should go through the middle of your shoulders too.

If you’ve adjusted the pillow to support the head and neck but your spine still looks really wavy, maybe it’s time to change your mattress. When you go mattress shopping, lie on your side and have your friend/family member assess your spine and head in the same way. Every person is going to have a different comfort level with soft vs firm mattresses. Just remember these two guidelines: “Does it support my spine?” and “Does it feel comfortable?”. It may sound general and cliche but the mattress and pillow that are correct for your body are going to allow you to fully relax as you sleep and wake with significantly less pain.

PS–If you and your friend/family member can’t tell if your head, neck and back are supported correctly, take a picture of you lying in bed and bring it with you to your next physical therapy appointment.

Thanks to my ever willing PT student/intern for “volunteering” to model for my pictures today.


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