Sunday, 5 April 2015

Pillow talk

Recently I'd been getting more neck and shoulder pain than usual. It was always the left side. I'd had the odd ache in that area for a long time - nothing that would prevent my getting a decent night's rest, but I'd often feel uncomfortable when waking up. The discomfort disappeared as I prepared breakfast and generally got active. In fact doing things normally when on my feet, using both hands and arms, was the invariable cure. I therefore concluded that this was some kind of muscle problem - deteriorating neck bones or a 'trapped nerve' wouldn't have cleared up so easily.

I noticed that heavy use of my tablet or my mobile phone (for 'computer' things) could also make my neck and left shoulder ache. It seemed fairly obvious what was going on there - I was holding the weight of these devices in my left hand, and even if they were partly supported by (say) my lap, holding them tensed up the entire left arm. Doing that for too long couldn't be good for me. The way to ease this strain was clear - it was just a question of remembering to limit the time I spent holding these things at one session. I didn't have to do everything at once. And I could try dodges like laying them on a flat surface, or placing them in some kind of holder, and touching the screen without simultaneously having to support them.

But what about that neck-and-shoulder discomfort when waking up, after a night's rest?

Investigating this on the Internet - NHS Choices and other websites - called to my attention the big part pillows play in being kind to one's body at night. A pillow (or combination of pillows) that were too fat and unyielding would tip the neck out of a straight line with the rest of the body, stretching neck muscles unnaturally. A thin and over-soft pillow would do the same thing, but in reverse.

This made sense. If I took an afternoon nap on my back, and woke in the same position, there was never any problem. Only if I'd gone to sleep on one side or the other might I experience discomfort on waking. The mattress was always a firm one.

Whether at home or in the caravan, I was using the same combo of two pillows, an old soft one filled with hollowfibre as a base, with a much firmer 'dual support memory foam' pillow by Fine Bedding on top. The 'dual support' bit meant that it had a soft layer (on which my head rested) bonded to a lower stiffer layer that supposedly 'remembered' my neck characteristics. It had cost the princely sum of £37.50 on 28 July 2009 at a shop called Lilliput in Bridport. At first these two pillows had been very comfortable together, but in more recent times a bit less so. However, I hadn't thought they were doing me any harm.

The websites discussed the effective life of pillows. This seemed surprisingly brief. Apparently, a cheap pillow, stuffed with bits of foam or polyester fibres or whatever, wouldn't be any use for more than a few months at best. And it wouldn't provide good support at any time. Cost-effective longevity and support lay in buying something in the £30 to £70 range, pillows with a high down content being recommended. Of course, they would say this, wouldn't they? Spend more to get something better for one's health and comfort! But I found myself agreeing.

Oh dear. My 'dual support' July 2009 pillow - nearly six years old - must be well past its best!

It seemed that I should be looking at the range offered by John Lewis. I could afford one new duck down or goose down pillow costing around £50 - although I could stretch to £60 if I needed to. Interestingly, the websites pointed out that, provided it was a decent one, a single pillow was all I'd need to rest my head on. You didn't need to pile them up. So just one new pillow could replace my old two-pillow combo. In theory.

Well, I acted straight away. Google Maps told me that there were two John Lewis at Home stores within reach, at Chichester and Tunbridge Wells. The same distance. I'd been to Chichester for lunch just the other day, so I chose Tunbridge Wells. They had a very good selection of own-brand pillows, from £10 upwards. I settled on a 'medium/firm' goose down pillow costing £60. Here it is at home, just over an hour later, about to be taken out of its wrapper:

So how did it go? Did I awake pain-free?

Well, it was quite a different bedtime experience. Instead of a firm, fixed-shape platform for my head, I had this squashier affair. You could thump it into the shape or thickness you wanted, and it would stay like that until you changed position. Lift off the head, and it recovered its original plump shape. I did feel that it was supporting my head rather well, and keeping my neck in a natural position. I tried lying on my side: this seemed a little more comfortable than before, even though the top surface of the single pillow felt slightly lower. I tried lying on my back, and that seemed particularly pleasant, my neck less crooked. I got to sleep easily, and awoke feeling relaxed. I certainly wasn't feeling any neck-strain as my eyes opened.

As I write this, I am now getting some neck pain, and I'm thinking that I probably have a series of posture problems to sort out, not to be instantly cured with just a change of pillows! But yes, even when you factor in the placebo effect of buying a supposedly 'good' pillow costing a lot of pennies, I'm sure that I've dealt with at least part of my muscle-pain problem.

I changed something else last night. It's been getting warmer, and my king-sized 'winter' duvet had been swapped for the much thinner summer one. On top of this, I'd placed an autumn-weight single duvet that I formerly used in the caravan. So I had a slightly lighter night-time covering overall. And I stayed at a comfortable temperature under it, never feeling overheated. That would have helped me get a good night's rest too.

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