Struggling to Find the Perfect Pillows When You Have Chronic Pain


It may seem odd that someone would write an article about pillows, but in actuality, they play an important role in my life. I have a sitting disability, which in a nutshell means: it hurts when I sit. I also have fibromyalgia which leaves me with pain in different areas, seemingly depending upon a roll of the dice. Finding a comfortable position is difficult for me, if not impossible at times.

In my 17 years of back pain, my goal has always been to keep my spine in the “natural” S-curve. I question the term “natural” because whenever I am in this position, I have tremendous pain. It is even more disheartening to see people around me with atrocious posture not complaining about back pain. But I proceed forward in my quest to find the perfect pillow to give me the perfect position.

It started with the lumbar support pillow. These came in many forms, most of which I still own today. The bulk of them I still own today. It started out with rolled up towels, which never stayed in position and always needed constant adjusting. The plus side was that I could lower or raise the level of support on the lumbar quickly.

Then came various lumbar support pillows that I used in different places: the car, the office chair, my office chair at home and so on. It took me a while to find the self-inflating pillow from Relax the Back. I love this pillow and have separate ones for different places: my partner’s car, home, my parents and one I carry with me for public transportation. This pillow deflates easily for storage and blows up for more support. My only beef with this is that I wish it also came in a size that was half the width. In a car seat, the lateral supports, the part of the seat that juts out on the sides to hold you in, come out too far. When I put this pillow there, the pillow juts out with it, causing discomfort.

Then came the string of fancy neck pillows for sleeping. Keeping the lumbar spine supported wasn’t enough. The cervical spine needed to be natural as well. If you throw one off, it’s likely to affect the other. I tried many memory foam ones until a chiropractor convinced me that the only one that would really support my neck is the expensive ($250) Tempur-Pedic one that only he sold out of his practice. I rolled my eyes at the sales tactic, but like always when it comes to making medical decisions: I was desperate for relief. However, the pillow worked like a charm for many years so I had no further complaints.

In a former lifetime, I was a traveling IT consultant who spent many nights in hotel rooms. No hotel pillow could compete with my trusty Tempur-Pedic, so I would carry the 4.7-lb. pillow in my check-in luggage, sometimes paying extra because I went over the weight limit. After flying United Airlines and gaining status, my weight limit went up and was no longer charged that. After that, there was no holding me back from bringing my pillow­ – or any of my other pain-relieving equipment such as my ergonomic keyboard and mouse, TENS unit, ice pack, heating pack and whatever creams and patches I was into at that time.

Tempur-Pedic pillows are only supposed to last two years. When I went to buy a new one, I went from store to store trying them out. Something changed about their design and they were not comfortable on my neck. Some were too small, not giving enough support, and others were too big, giving too much support and pushing my neck into an uncomfortable position. Maybe two years of my old pillow had conditioned me to feel that was the only comfortable position? Maybe my cervical spine was not open-minded enough? When I did buy them and give them a fair chance, I ended up going back to my old one. The pillow is now 14 years old and I have gone to lengths to wash it and cover it with several pillowcases for sanitary reasons. Luckily, the Tempur-Pedic material doesn’t trap dirt and sweat like other do.

As my chronic pain problems progressed, the pain in my neck increased and I searched again for pillows. I have them in all sorts of shapes and hardness levels. And I have spent way too much money on them. One night, when I had done my usual round of waking up every two hours and switching pillows, I looked at the pile of necessary pillows I keep next to my bed to get through the night and counted I have accumulated hundreds of dollars’ worth of ergonomic pillows. My pillow collection is probably the most expensive thing I own. I might feel better about it if I had some luxurious experience with these pillows, but no, it’s all about ergonomics, and failed ergonomics at that. I don’t need a lavender scent; I need it to support my neck.

Lastly, there are the wedge pillows. Most physiatrists, physical therapists and chiropractors will testify that it is better to keep your hips raised higher than your knees. In other words, in a chair that is at a perfect 90-degree angle in which the seat is parallel with the floor, you need a wedge underneath your butt to raise it. I can testify that this works because it brings an immediate relief to sciatica in my left leg. However, in many seats, such as in cars and on airplanes, the seat dips down in the back, so instead of dealing with a ninety-degree angle, the butt is lower than your knees. This means that I need different wedge pillows for different situations. I wish that Relax the Back made an inflatable pillow that works as good as the lumbar support one.

I have attempted large wedge pillows for under the neck for sleeping and sitting up at a 45-degree angle on the bed for reading. This attempt failed quickly and I abandoned it. However, another type of wedge pillow underneath my knees for keeping my back flat while sleeping works great while sleeping on my back only. Since I toss and turn all night, as well as get up several times to switch pillows, I never stay in the same place and the pillow underneath my knees is eventually abandoned as well.

I don’t want to sound all Debbie Downer on pillows. They work when they work, and need to be adjusted when they don’t. Like everyone who struggles with chronic pain issues, I need to keep searching for better ones to fit my needs. I just wish they were not as expensive.

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Thinkstock photo via gpointstudio.

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