Just as good sitting and standing posture is important to the health of your neck and spine, so is good sleep posture. Choosing the right pillow is an important part of maintaining a healthy sleep posture. The purpose of a good pillow is to keep your head and neck aligned in a neutral position while you sleep. The right pillow for you is largely determined by your dominant sleeping position, whether that is your side, back, or stomach.
Here’s the “pillow talk” on trying to find the right pillow for your preferred sleep position:
- Side sleepers usually need a firm pillow that takes up the space between the mattress and your head so that your head and neck are kept in a straight line with your back parallel to the mattress. Try measuring the distance from the side of your head to the outside of your shoulder. Although this measurement will be different for everyone, it can be used as an approximation for the thickness of your pillow, plus or minus an inch or two to account for compression of the pillow from your head. If you are experiencing back pain try placing another pillow between your legs for additional support.
- Back sleepers need a pillow that cradles and supports the head without losing the natural “C” curve of the neck, but beware as sleeping on your back can promote snoring and sleep apnea. For this reason, side sleeping is usually best. If you are experiencing back pain in this sleep position, try placing a pillow under your knees.
- Stomach sleepers may do best with a soft pillow or even no pillow at all. Sleeping on your stomach puts more stress on your neck and lower back so it is usually recommended that you avoid this sleep position and instead try sleeping on your side or back. Try hugging a body pillow or placing a pillow between on under your knees while on your side or back for additional support.
Another important factor to pay attention to when selecting a pillow are the materials it’s made of. Materials vary from foam, down, water, polyester, latex, and even buckwheat. A traditional or contoured (wave-shaped) memory foam pillow will not flatten as quickly over time compared to polyester or down filled pillows. The best pillows for quick re-fluffing are foam, or foam combined with other materials.
Most pillows last around two years. A good rule of thumb is, if it does not bounce back after you fold it in half, it’s time to replace it. Many pillows on the market will be labeled as best for side sleepers or back sleepers. However, it is difficult to tell if a pillow will be right for you based on giving it a couple of “squeezes” in the store. Make sure you check the return policy at the store you buy it from, because it can take a week before you know if it is right for you. In the end it all comes down to what offers the best comfort for your personal preference.
David J. BenEliyahu, DC, DAAPM, DABCSP is the Administrative Director of the Back & Neck Pain Center at Mather Hospital.
Attend a free seminar on the prevention and treatment of back and neck pain.