There's not a lot worse than lying awake at night in pain. One of the most common causes of this is neck arthritis. If you have been diagnosed with neck arthritis, you’ll understand the importance of providing the right support for your neck, especially at night. Why is an ergonomic memory foam pillow the right option?
We have all, at one time or another, suffered from an aching neck. When your neck is sore or stiff, everyday activities are almost impossible. Your head aches, you feel a popping or grinding when you turn your head and finding a comfortable position when you sit, stand or walk is just not possible. When it comes time to turn in for the night, you’ll toss and turn with the ache in your neck getting worse as a result of less-than-supportive pillows.
For some people, this is a long-term reality of living with neck arthritis.
The different types of neck arthritis
There are also different types of arthritis that can affect the neck;
- Osteoarthritis in the neck – this is when the joints, vertebrae, and discs in the neck degenerate. The padding between the vertebrae, known as cartilage, wears away affected and this leads to the bones rubbing together. Small fragments of bone can also break off and float around in the synovial fluid. With this type of arthritis, bone spurs are common too. This is the form of arthritis most commonly associated with age and unless you have been diagnosed with the other types of arthritis, this is probably the most likely cause of long term neck pain. In the UK, around 8.5 million people are thought to suffer from osteoarthritis.
- Rheumatoid arthritis in the neck – this is chronic inflammation in the joints, a disease that causes the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack the lining of the joints. It starts in other joints and often spreads throughout the body such as to the neck. The main symptom of this type of arthritis is pain, the severity of which varies from one person to another. Pain will also be accompanied by stiffness and swelling, with symptoms getting progressively worse.
- Spondylarthritis in the neck – this is an umbrella term for inflammatory disease that involves both the joints and ligaments and tendons attached to the bone. This type of neck arthritis is often seen alongside psoriasis, an inflammatory skin condition. Not everyone who has been diagnosed with this kind of arthritis will suffer with it in the neck but can affect one side of the body. Pain and stiffness in the neck and other joints are early signs.
The spine anatomy and how osteoarthritis in the neck affects it
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis to affect people and is often known as degenerative joint disease. It can affect anyone at any time although it is more common in people over the age of 40. Women are also more prone to suffer from it than men.
Common in the hands, hips and other major joints, when arthritis affects the neck it is often diagnosed as cervical spondylosis. As well as pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders that comes and goes, you may also suffer from excruciating headaches. Consult your GP if you have any of these symptoms.
Both cervical spondylosis and osteoarthritis are associated with joints degenerating, that is wearing away with use, which is why they are often associated with age. But how do they affect the top of the spine?
The 24 vertebrae that compromise the spine are stacked on top of each other, running from the lower back right up to the tip. As well as forming a strong structure for the rest of the skeleton, the spine also houses the central nervous system.
In the cervical spine – the part of the spine found in the neck – there are seven small vertebrae. It is in these small bones where arthritis can become a problem.
As the discs in the back age, they lose height and start to bulge as a result. They lose water content too, a process that dries out the joint and causes them to weaken. Eventually, the space between the discs collapses, causing the vertebrae to sit closer together.
This ‘coming together’ places extra pressure on the ‘face’ of each vertebra, similar to what happens when knees and hip joints show signs of arthritis. Cartilage, the smooth slippery substance between joints, is worn away too as a result of the bones grinding against each other.
When cartilage has rubbed away completely, bone grinds against bone, something in itself that is painful. The body sometimes responds by growing extra bone, known as bone spurs. Although meant as a positive response, the result can be more discomfort as this new bone growth grinds against the other vertebrae.
Photo credit @DrWolgin
Are some people more prone to neck arthritis?
Living an active lifestyle whilst enjoying a balanced diet is key to preventing many illnesses and can also help in managing conditions like arthritis. However, preventing neck arthritis from developing may not be entirely possible.
- Family history - if arthritis is common in your family, you may find that this becomes a condition you’ll need to manage as you grow older.
- Occupation – there is also a link between repetitive neck motion and arthritis in the neck. Forward head syndrome is when the head is held forward and down, leading to rounding on the back of the neck. Whilst this alone is not a cause of neck arthritis, it can exacerbate pain and other symptoms associated with it.
- Injury or trauma to the neck – car accidents that resulted in severe whiplash and other neck injuries can also increase the severity of the symptoms of neck arthritis, as well as weakening the cartilage and the vertebrae in some cases too.
What are the symptoms of neck arthritis?
In the majority of cases, people will experience mild symptoms. For example, they may experience infrequent neck ache or maybe notice a decreased ability to be able to turn the head through a 180° arc. Other than investing in a supportive pillow, they may notice little change.
But for other people, neck arthritis is a significant health concern with a range of symptoms that vary in severity;
- Pain and stiffness in the neck are common – this can be mild or severe. Pain and stiffness are worse after holding the neck in the same position for a length of time, such as working at a PC or lowering the head to read.
- Headaches – frequent headaches are also a sign of neck arthritis although again, this will vary from one person to another.
- Grinding or popping noise – when turning your neck, you may be conscious of popping or even a fizzing sensation in your neck. Although not painful, it is a sign of neck arthritis.
- Muscle spasms in the neck – the feeling of your neck being ‘stuck’ in position is also common when suffering from neck arthritis. Neck spasms can last for some time and can affect day to day life.
- Restless sleep – with the cervical spine effectively changing shape as a result of the vertebrae degenerating, it can be difficult to support the neck, especially at night. Inadequate support leads to the neck ‘collapsing’ which is painful, often leaving a residual ache in the neck and shoulders. Waking at night to rearrange pillows to support your head is another symptom of neck arthritis.
- An aching neck on waking – for many people who manage neck arthritis, the worst time of day can be when they open their eyes in the morning. Without adequate support from their pillow, the ache or pain associated with arthritis can be much worse.
In cases where neck arthritis is advanced, some people find walking and maintaining their balance hard. There could also be a weakness in the arms, hands and fingers, a symptom caused by the narrowing gap between the vertebrae leading to nerves being squashed.
Relieving the symptoms of neck arthritis
In the majority of cases, relieving the symptoms of neck arthritis and managing the condition is non-surgical. In more severe cases, there are surgical options.
Managing neck arthritis is often about managing pain, something that many people do by using medication with the advice of their GP or nurse.
There are various options from over the counter painkillers to stronger prescription-only painkillers. Steroid injections may also be an option as this can help to strengthen the muscles and ligaments in the neck. Nerve block injections, an epidural type medication, can also help to minimise pain.
Difficult as it may be, being able to maintain as much movement in the neck as possible helps the spine, muscles, and neck ligaments to remain strong. If you suffer from neck pain or arthritis before you start any exercise regimen you should consult your doctor.
Physiotherapy is also successful in helping people manage neck pain through movement and exercise.
- Lifestyle choices
Remaining active as much as you can, eating well and also stopping smoking also help neck arthritis. Some studies show smoking inhibits the take up of medications for arthritis by the body, meaning you won’t get the full benefit of any medicines prescribed for you.
Some people also find using a cold compress on the neck is a useful remedy for use at home, especially when the neck feels inflamed or is aching. This can also help with any swelling you have too.
Being aware of neck posture, especially when performing repetitive movements, can also help manage the symptoms of neck arthritis. For example, add height to your PC screen so that you are not sitting with your head forward and down, a posture that is likely to inflame arthritis in your neck. The same is true for when you are reading or sitting.
Is neck arthritis interrupting your sleep?
No matter which joint is inflamed with arthritis, it is a painful, sore condition to manage. Getting comfortable when sitting or lying can be difficult. Arthritis in the neck can make getting a good night’s sleep almost impossible.
Waking several times a night because you are uncomfortable is not conducive to living well with arthritis. Lack of sleep leads to poor concentration and affects your mental health, two things which are already under pressure from living with a painful or sore neck, headaches and other symptoms of neck arthritis.
Choosing the right pillow is essential and is just as important, if not more so, than choosing the right mattress to support your spine.
To get a good night’s sleep, you should;
#1 Choose a pillow that helps with spine alignment
You don’t want a pillow that is too thin and doesn’t support your neck, or too thick which pushes your neck into an unnatural position.
The top third of the spine in your neck would normally be in a soft C shape. Neck arthritis alters this shape and so you need a pillow that supports your neck rather than straightening it or forcing it to curve.
When choosing a pillow, you want one that fills the curve in your neck without pushing it or allowing your head to drop below your spine.
A memory foam pillow is an ideal choice in many ways. People with neck arthritis have found that the soft, structured support that it offers cradles their neck in the right position. This is because the foam ‘remembers’ your neck shape, filling in gaps and compressing in areas where it needs to. Over time, as the shape of your neck changes, so too will the pillow shape meaning that you will always get the support that you need from the pillow.
#2 Avoid sleeping on your front
Anyone with advanced neck arthritis would find sleeping on their front far too painful. This is because the neck is twisted or rotated to a 90° angle to the body. And because it's been held in this position for some time, straightening the neck is very painful.
#3 Consider wearing a soft collar
If the arthritis is advanced and the symptoms severe, you may find that sleeping with a padded, soft neck collar brings relief. However, you should use this under guidance as over-relying on this kind of collar can quickly weaken the neck, exacerbating symptoms and pain.
Which is the right pillow to relieve neck arthritis?
The right pillow makes all the difference to how well anyone sleeps but when you have neck problems, including arthritis, the right pillow is of the utmost importance.
There are many materials to choose from and words of advice when it comes to choosing the right pillow. The price is not the best indicator of how well a pillow will support your neck, so what should you be looking for?
- Width – a pillow should be wide enough to support the distance between your shoulders and your neck. You should be able to put your head on the pillow with a decent amount of pillow supporting the underside of your neck, resting on the top of your shoulders. Your shoulders should not be on the pillow when lying down.
- Shaping – a pillow that moulds and fits to your form is best. A memory foam pillow does exactly that. It offers you support where you need it most but without ‘pushing’ at your neck. Neither will it flatten, preventing your head from resting below the spine, a sleeping position that is uncomfortable for anyone but excruciating for someone with neck arthritis.
- Thickness - whether you sleep on your back or on your side, the pillow should fill the space between the mattress and your ear. But again, you don’t want a pillow that is overstuffed leading to your head being pushed forward. If you sleep with two or more pillows, you may find replacing it with one memory foam pillow that contours to your shape works better.
The power of a good night’s sleep
Your health is important and sleep is an important component in staying physically and mentally alert. Managing neck arthritis means finding a combination of solutions that work for you and undoubtedly, a good night’s sleep is part of what you are seeking. A memory foam pillow will offer the support that you need, allowing you to enjoy a restful night’s slumber again.