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Softly Working Hard: Support Pillows for Physical Therapy

An aching back, a sore neck, sciatica pain that runs from your lower back all the way to your calf. Each of these physical miseries has a variety of treatments that run from specialty braces to expensive and risky surgery. But what if a simple pillow could make a major difference in pain levels for not just these common conditions, but also for post-surgery patients, people recovering from accidents, and more?

While there's not one miracle pillow that can cure everything that ails you, there are a variety of support pillows for physical therapy that can address a variety of situations, usually resulting in reduced pain and, in some cases, actual improvement in the physical condition.

Consider the post-foot surgery patient who is required to spend six weeks on her back with her foot elevated. In a situation like this, not just any pillow will do. Depending on the location of the surgery, even the slightest pressure can create tremendous pain. A microbead roll pillow is literally what the doctor might order, because it provides cradling support without pressure points, important not only as it relates to pain, but also to the potential for developing a post-surgery blood clot.

It's also cradling support that many physicians recommend as treatment for people suffering from tension headaches, neck and shoulder pain upon awakening and arthritis. A core support pillow has a "nest" stitched into the center of it and the sides rise above the nest. You nestle your head in nest and the sides of the pillow cradle your neck and gently support your head so that you are guided into perfect alignment and are less likely to move in to an improper position as you sleep. One long side of the pillow is slightly larger than the other to accommodate varying neck lengths. Core support pillows are best for back and side sleepers.

A similar aligning pillow that provides core support has a "hill" running along both long ends of the pillow with a "valley" the runs through the middle. This type of pillow offers almost identical cervical support to back and side sleepers. The hills are slightly different sizes to accommodate varying neck lengths.

Knee crescents and wedges are designed to raise your knees to relieve low back pain while sleeping. Many people who don't even complain of pain find that a knee crescent or wedge helps them relax and drift off to sleep. Both crescents and wedges are about two feet wide and raise knees about a foot. A wedge offers declining support of lower legs, which some people find more comfortable. Sleeping pillows can provide the same service, but don't offer the safe uniformity of a designated knee crescent or wedge.

Pillows don't have to stay in the bedroom to offer relief, though. A variety of bolsters, rolls and cushions are available to improve home and workplace ergonomics.

Knee crescents and wedges are often sent home with post-surgery patients that need to perform physical therapy exercises while lying on their backs. The height of the crescent or wedge makes it easier to raise legs and it offers a soft landing as strength is built.

Larger wedges of varying sizes offer similar support for post-stroke and post-spine and postñhead injury accident patients as they relearn basic movements and activities through physical therapy. Physical therapy for these patients is often very involved and time-consuming. The soft wedges offer comfortable but firm support for the patient and peace of mind to the caregiver.

Support pillows can also provide daily preventive physical therapy. Lumbar support while at a workstation (or home computer or sewing machine) is one of the top recommendations of physical therapists to avoid upper and lower back strain. Options include simple rolls that can be tied onto the back of a chair, a half back cushion that gently slopes toward the lower back and a full back cushion with a helpful built-in roll.

Speaking of rollers, pillows called roll bolsters might be the hardest working pillow around (no pun intended). Roll bolsters are often used by massage therapists to relax patients by placing them under knees, lower backs and necks while they work on other areas of the body. Side-sleeping pregnant women find soothing support by placing the pillow against their spines. Other side sleepers can align their spines by placing a roll bolster in front of them and propping a knee atop it. And even pain-free folks find that lying on top of a roll bolster with the spine perpendicular to the length of the roll bolster, arms open, to be rejuvenating.