Choosing the Perfect Pillow

Pillows are essential to getting a good night’s sleep, but how do you choose the right one? One major factor is your sleep position, whether that be lying on your back, side, or stomach. For each kind of sleeper, a pillow should provide a combination of support and comfort. In particular, a good pillow elevates your head, neck, and shoulders and holds them in natural alignment them with your spine. The right pillow in the right place will thus ensure that you sleep soundly and wake with no pain.

Pillow problems

While a good pillow supports sleep and your body’s natural alignment, a bad one will make sleep difficult and lead to aches and grogginess the morning after. Poorly chosen pillows can even worsen bone and muscle pain, discomfort, or numbness, with the potential to exacerbate headaches and disrupt breathing. For instance, when a side or back sleeper chooses a pillow that is too high or too low, their neck will bend awkwardly, straining the neck and shoulders and potentially obstructing the wind pipe. Disrupting your sleep can further increase the risk of obesity, depression, and other health issues.

Back Sleepers Beware

So, if you are a back sleeper, you should pick pillows with enough thickness and firmness to support your head, neck, shoulders, and overall cervical spine’s natural curvature. A medium firm pillow is ideal, as it will be relatively thin but with less height than that required for side sleepers so that your head is not pushed too far forward. With the addition of a firm pillow beneath the knees, the lumbar spine can flatten and relieve the strain placed upon the pain sensitive facet joints in the spine. In reducing that load, this position is ideal for relieving back pain.

Sideways Suggestions

While this is the most common sleeping position, side sleepers need thicker pillows to keep the spine in a natural line. If you sleep on your side, a firm pillow is best for supporting your head and neck to prevent muscle strain and stiffness. Placing a firm pillow between your knees will also help relieve pressure on the hips and lower back by preventing the legs from coming together and distorting the spine. Keeping the spine in a neutral position will prevent back pain, as well. Body pillows may also be ideal for side sleepers, as the top will support the head and neck, while the lower part will support the knees and legs. Pregnant women, in particular, will enjoy added abdominal support.

Stomach Sleeping Safety

While this position should generally be avoided, proper pillow placement can reduce back and neck pain. For those of us who sleep on their stomach, you should either rest your head on the mattress or use a relatively flat pillow. This will prevent your head and neck from turning unnaturally to the side, especially with a thin pillow keeping your head turned downward. Adding a pillow below the stomach can prevent the lower back pain that generally results from this position by lessening pressure on the neck and back. One more pillow beneath your ankles will give even more spinal support.  

No matter what kind of sleeper you are, replace pillows every 12 to 18 months, as they wear out and fill with mold, dust, fungus, and other contaminants. Consider different kinds of fillings, from supportive foam to flexible memory foam, contoured latex, hypoallergenic wool and cotton, and popular down and synthetic down options. Avoid overly expensive pillows, but do try them out in-store if possible.