A pain in the neck…
I am one of the lucky ones. I can count on one hand the number of times in my life I have suffered serious neck or back pain. My back pain experience has always been to do with doing something really stupid like single-handedly trying to yank the old fridge onto the back of the ute; and neck pain has invariably been caused by similar folly – over imbibing and falling asleep on the couch in a cold draft - never anything long lasting or chronic.
But still, pain is pain. It feels very real and is seriously debilitating at the time, causing inability to function normally and lack of sleep with all its insidious side effects. One remembers acute pain for ever which is why it is such a good teacher to take more care. It also allows one to empathise and understand what chronic, long term sufferers go through.
Then there was the time some old codger on a Sunday drive was more interested in pointing out the scenic view to his left than the road in front of him and, without braking, drove straight into the back of my old Valiant, stationary, waiting to make a right turn.
This was back in the early 70’s, the beginning of compulsory seat belts and still a time when it was common practise to hook a baby seat over the front bench seat and have your child ride, strapped-in and sitting between you. She was only 2 years old at that time and on impact, she, and the seat went flying off into the back of our car. Naturally shock and panic resulted with everybody fearing the worst – but after calming our little girl down and taking stock we felt that nobody was seriously hurt and we had been very lucky.
While the other vehicle was a write off, the elderly couple were fine and we managed to limp home thinking we had all got out of the accident in pretty good shape. Our daughter was quickly back to being her usual happy self, but as a precaution we took her to the doctor for a thorough check-up and we were delighted when he reassured us that there was no injury whatsoever.
As the day wore on, I started experiencing neck pain and by the next morning knew I was in trouble. Whiplash with a capital W! The pain increased in intensity, similar to the way cracked ribs start off feeling manageable and then really start to bite. I took myself to the docs who wobbled my head and shoulders about, poked me here and there asking if it hurt (yes, it did. A lot), gave me some Panadol and told me I’d suffer ‘some discomfort’ for a week or two. Naturally the wife was right as rain, not a hint of pain and seriously unsympathetic to my ‘carrying on like a pork chop’, not being able to rotate my head and keeping her awake at night moaning and groaning.
It was so long ago, I cannot remember exactly how long the neck pain lasted, but I’m damn sure it was for at least..………. 2 weeks - and the pain level was WAY beyond the ‘some discomfort’ category. Agony was closer to the mark – especially at night. One remembers trying lying in different positions to ease the pain, putting a cushion between the shoulder blades or lying on ones side with a pillow under the head and another pillow pushed in behind the neck, just to get some respite. But of course – the doctor was absolutely correct. My injury was not serious. The pain eased, became unnoticeable, disappeared and I have had not a skerrick of neck ache trouble ever since.
The years went by with the whole family in fine fettle and generally in excellent health. At age about 9 my daughter began complaining about getting headaches, which developed into migraines that became more severe as she entered her teens. By the time she was 16, she had co-incidentally developed asthma and also noticed neck and shoulder pain would sometimes precede or coincide with the headaches, which occurred sporadically but would last for days on end - and doctors could never diagnose a cause or a remedy.
It was not until she was into her 20’s and making her own decisions that she announced she’d had a neck pain and headache for 2 weeks and had made an appointment with a ‘chiropractor’ to see if he could help. Questioning revealed he was not a qualified and certified chiropractor as such, this ‘bloke’ was more a folk healer with a cult like reputation in the area for being able to ‘fix’ people’s problems. It was rumoured he was also highly regarded by horse trainers and greyhound owners.
I was sceptical, to say the least. Alternative medicine has never been my cup of tea. I’d been raised in East Africa to horrific tales of some of the antics local witch doctors got up to, doing the unimaginable - like trying to cure albino children. Then, during later travels in the Orient I witnessed first-hand the locals liking for rhino horn and tiger’s penis and acupuncture and cupping and moxibustion. And no herbal remedy has ever successfully sent me to sleep, or stopped me from getting cramp, or pepped me up.
Anyway, off she went to see this ‘bloke’ who was going to charge her $50 for a half hour consultation. I’ll never forget her coming home with this big grin on her face. She told us how terrific he was, how he had gently worked his fingers into her shoulder blade, neck and the top of her spine. How he had manipulated her neck and there was a clicking noise and the pain MELTED AWAY! Just like that. I don’t remember the technical details, but it was along the lines of his having detected injury to a facet joint and upper cervical disc and asking whether she had ever suffered a serious fall or car crash. After all this time it was that smash in my Valiant, 18 years earlier that had caused so much discomfort .
The guy was a genius. She would go and see him every few months at first, but the visits became less and less frequent till hardly ever. Apart from his magic hands, he had given her all sorts of advice about the importance of keeping the neck and spine in alignment during sleep. How vital it is to sleep on a good quality, supportive mattress that is not too soft and doesn’t sag. How she should buy herself a good quality therapeutic contour latex pillow and experiment with it till she determined the sleeping position that suited her best.
He placed a lot of importance on her using the right pillow that would best help offset the problems her permanent injury could cause during sleep. His preference was a latex contour pillow and he demonstrated how she should try sleeping with the high side closest to her shoulders, as opposed to the low side. Then try the other way round to determine which worked best. And how the pillow could be flipped over for tummy sleeping with the flat side at top and the hands pushed through the tunnel in the middle.
The man was in love with NATURAL latex. He explained how it is naturally hypoallergenic and would help with her asthma ……………… which is another story. It was about this time that our daughter flew the nest and within no time the asthma attacks almost stopped completely. To this day she firmly believes it was our house that was the cause of her asthma. How could that be? We LOVE our house.
Anyway, she thinks moving out cured the asthma - and I think it was her bloke and his pillow.
And so back to the original question, can having the right pillow really help neck pain? We believe the unequivocal answer is YES. The evidence from health professionals, chiropractors and physiotherapists all agree on the need for support to the cervical vertebrae (C1 – C7) in the upper back and neck area, during sleep. Google-up ‘neck pain treatment’ and you get page after page of qualified medical advice, all of which refer to the importance of a good supportive pillow as an aid to better sleep and reducing pain. Google ‘pillows for neck pain’ and ignore the paid ads. The organic listings are mainly health professionals and organisations.
Of course everybody is different and there are lots of causes for neck ache. Some injuries require no pillow at all – for some the head even has to be in slight decline. But for MOST PEOPLE NECK PAIN DECREASES WITH GOOD PILLOW SUPPORT, CREATING A NEUTRAL SPINE POSITION.
So – which pillow to choose?
We go along with the findings of a CHOICE survey in Feb 2011.
“Members who bought latex pillows were more satisfied than those who purchased polyester pillows. While polyester pillows are cheap, they tend to be very soft and lack good support for your head and neck.
Members who paid between $50 - $200 were more satisfied than those who paid less than $50. Half the pillows in the higher price bracket were made from latex, and latex pillows scored higher than average for satisfaction.
Interestingly Tempur (memory foam) which topped our mattress survey provide less satisfaction for pillows”.