It is one of my most commonly asked questions.
What is the best kind of pillow?
I need to buy a new pillow … What should I look for?
If you think your pillow may be the cause of your neck ache or back pain, before you head out to buy a new one have a read through this and I believe you will head to the shops with a better understanding of what you are looking for.
A pillow’s sole purpose is to support your head and neck in a neutral position aligned with the rest of your spine. You are looking for support AND comfort. Not one or the other. So where do you start?
Choose a pillow appropriate to your body frame. If it is too low/high for your frame it will create stresses and strains in your neck and shoulders. If you are a petite person you may need a completely different pillow to your partner who has broad shoulders. Check out how this impacts your spine in the video below.
Become aware of the position you sleep in for the majority of the time – that way you can pick a suitable height. If you spend most of your time of your back then you may need quite a low pillow. If you are on your side for the majority of the night you need to pop back to the last point and look at your frame. Access the breadth of your shoulders and get the right size accordingly. Sleeping on your tummy is the least desirable position for supporting your spine, so really rather than fit your pillow around your tummy sleeping position, you need to address the tummy position first. This will serve you a great deal more than getting a new pillow. Read more about tummy sleeping here.
Some of you will know that places like Harvey Norman (I have no connection with this company) do pillow fitting services. They very simply measure the breath of your shoulders and recommend a size (1,2,3,4 etc) based on this and then you look at the type of material you would like. Which leads me on to the next point.
Have you a personal preference? Do you like your pillow to allow you to sink in? Or have rebound? Or be firm? Do you like to be able to reshape it and/or give it a few thumps to get it right for you? What kind of material do you want your pillow to be made from?
You may also want to consider a hypo allergenic and non toxic pillow. You are lying on this for eight hours every night … some of the more synthetic materials may be “off-gassing” toxic fumes. This can be more of an issue for people that have breathing issues such as COPD or asthma or for those with sinus issues. In my experience, for those with these kind of issues they notice quite a difference in their sleep quality when they switch to a non toxic brand. However, I feel this is something for all of us to consider (including our kids and infants) for overall health. To learn more about this issue pop over to this blog.
These preferences matter, but ultimately your pillow needs to be supportive and suited to you and your needs.
“My new pillow doesn’t feel right”
This is another comment I often hear.
Getting used to a new pillow needs some consideration. Think of it like getting a new pair of shoes. There are a few days where you are settling in and getting used to this new “perspective”.
If your previous pillow really wasn’t supportive and now this one is – your spine, muscles, ligaments, tendon need a period of adaptation and integration. So give it a couple of days to allow your spine to settle into this new shape and support. Plus perhaps try and do some simple neck stretches every morning in this transition period. Maybe even take a hot shower in the morning and do gentle neck stretches if you do wake up with a neck ache after using a new pillow.
However, if you are NOT settling in after a week or two, maybe the pillow is not the right for you. I’ve experimented with lots of different types over the years and once or twice I’ve had one get pushed to the back of the cupboard very quickly.
They just didn’t work for me and my needs.
How often should I change my pillow?
Another common question. This one again comes down to two things – support and hygiene.
Just like your mattress wears out after 8/10 years, your pillow also has a life span. Remember, you use your pillow every night, so it will lose its support after a period of time. Some recommend changing it every 18 months. However, I feel this is a little excessive. If the whole country was replacing every pillow in the house every 18 months that would lead to a lot of environmental waste. And just like I care about human health, I care about the planet’s health. So I would aim for 2/3 years. If your pillow is 4/5 years old, or for lots of people they can’t even remember when they bought their pillow – it’s time to replace!
For some they wish to change their pillow every 18 months due to hygiene concerns. We are breathing and possibly drooling and sometimes sneezing and coughing into this absorb-able material for eight hours a night. So microbial load is a concern. While we can chuck our pillow in the washing machine – this often affects the structure and support leading to it deteriorating in support more quickly than perhaps you would wish. Also, some pillows can not be dry cleaned or machine washed – mine can only be hand washed. How often do you have time to hand wash your pillow?
A simple, very practical strategy to minimise this concern is a pillow protector. Buy a couple of pillow protectors and every time your change your outer case, change your protector too. This offers a layer of protection for the pillow to reduce the load of nasties and can help extend the lifespan of your pillow.
Do I really need a pillow?
Just to throw a spanner in the works – some people do not use a pillow at all. A few of my clients weaned themselves off of using a pillow over several years. The thoughts behind it are that it is viewed at another crutch of modern day life. A type of orthotic. That in fact, it would be better for your neck and spine to have the opportunity to naturally stretch and move throughout the night. There is quite a bit of conversation around this in the natural movement world. To go a little deeper on this pop over to this wonderful blog.
One type of pillow I am not keen on is the contoured style pillow. Simply because they are a fixed shape and you are not in a fixed position all night. You move around. For sure you have a position you spend the majority of the night in … but you need a pillow that is flexible to both side lying, lying on your back and movement in general. Something fixed or rigid in shape would not be high on my list.
Full disclosure: I have not tried every pillow on the market. My own choice is a natural sheep wool pillow and I steer clear of pillows that can “off-gas” toxic chemicals as I sleep (and breathe) on them. Ask me about which one I use on your next appointment with me.
If you have any further questions regarding this topic please do not hesitate to contact the clinic here. If you have been putting up with neck or shoulder pain, gentle hands-on care at Natural Back Health may be suitable for you.
Hopefully you find the general information in this blog informative and helpful, however it is not intended to replace medical advice and should not be used as such.
Happy pillow talk!