Pillows are something we use pretty much every night of our entire lives, so it’s not surprising that we each have our own personal pillow preferences. Over time, we tend to get used to certain types of pillows, and end up gravitating towards pillows that are hard or soft enough, stuffed with down rather than polyester, or use some sort of memory foam. But even if we have built up these preferences over the course of our whole lives, liking a certain type of pillow doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you.
Usually when people think about what kind of pillow they like, they’re thinking in terms of comfort and getting a good night’s sleep. Getting a good quality of rest, especially over an extended period of time, is extremely important for your health. Chronic sleep deprivation comes with a wide range of health risks, from a reduced cognitive ability and increased risk of depression, to an increased risk of heart disease, weight gain, and diabetes. These are all incredibly important reasons to get a good night’s sleep, but the effects of your pillow extend beyond the quality of your sleep, and can have both short and long-term physical consequences.
The thing we need to remember about pillows is that they are there to provide support to our heads as we lay still for extended periods of time. Even if you toss and turn during the night, your head and neck are moving a lot less than they would during the day. With this in mind, you need to think of pillows as a way to help you keep your head, neck, and spine in alignment during the night. Failure to do so could lead not only to neck pain, but also to problems such as back pain or headaches.
How to achieve this alignment, and decide which pillows are best for you, depends mainly on how you sleep. If you sleep on your side, for example, you want a pillow that will keep your head as horizontal as possible, as this will help it line up better with your spine, which is running parallel to your mattress. At this point it is also important to note that the number of pillows you use will obviously affect alignment. Unless you have specifically been advised otherwise by your doctor, you should probably be using just one or two pillows.
Sleeping on your back can be a good position for people who suffer from back pain, but again, only if the alignment is correct. Using pillows that elevate your head, so that you are not staring directly at the ceiling, pushes your head too far forward, which puts pressure on the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and lower back. Similarly, using a pillow that does not elevate enough forces your neck muscles to work all night pulling it up, leading to neck pain.
If you sleep on your front, you need a small, thin pillow that will not elevate your head too much. Using too many pillows or pillows that are too big in this position forces your neck into a backward position, which can put stress not only on your neck, but on your lower back too. Front sleeping is not recommended for most people, as it always requires your neck to be turned, but if you need to sleep on your front, it is also advisable that you place a pillow under your stomach to prevent your spine from sinking forward.
The last thing to remember with pillows is that they don’t last forever. We may grow attached to our pillows, or not feel the need to spend money on something we already have at home, but a high-end pillow will only last you up to 4 years, and a cheap one probably won’t be any good after just a year. You may not think of it as a necessary expense, but if you frequently have a bad night’s sleep, or wake up every morning with aches and pains, it might be time for you to reconsider your pillow situation.