Choosing the Best Pillow for a Healthier Night's Sleep

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Let's face it. You probably don't give a lot of thought to the pillow you sleep on. And you probably didn't give your pillow much thought when you purchased it either. The truth is that most people don't. It's not unusual for a person (or a couple) to spend thousands of dollars on a high-quality mattress but then buy pillows that don't support the head and neck properly. That's because-while they understand that sleeping on the wrong mattress can quickly lead to a backache-they aren't aware that poor alignment of the neck and upper back during sleep can lead to other, more subtle problems that they may not associate with the spine.

If a person's head is supported by the pillow at a level that's either too high or too low relative to the rest of the body, the neck and upper back can be placed under stress. Similar stress can also occur if their upper back is not supported along with the neck (so that the head tilts forward), or if the head is allowed to roll sideways when the person is sleeping on his or her back. Symptoms include snoring, insomnia and waking up with a headache, stiff neck or numbness in the arms and hands. If you're experiencing these sorts of symptoms, you may be sleeping on the wrong pillow.

Choosing a pillow is a very personal decision. The pillow that's right for someone else may not be right for you. Nevertheless, we've provided some basic guidelines that will make it easier for you to choose the right one. The right pillow:

  • Supports your head at the proper height whether you're sleeping on your side or on your back.
  • Supports both your head and neck in a neutral position while you're sleeping on your side (Make sure there is no gap between the pillow and your neck!).
  • Provides adequate support for both your neck and upper back while you're sleeping on your back.
  • Keeps your head tilted in the proper neutral position while you're sleeping on your back.
  • Prevents your head from rolling sideways while you're sleeping on your back.
  • Is easy to move on.

In general, you're looking for a pillow that supports your neck, cushions your head and keeps your spine in alignment. It must be comfortable! Here are a few additional purchasing tips:

Know what you like. Do you prefer a pillow that's "bouncy" or one that can be "molded" to the shape of your head and neck? How "dense" do you like your pillow to feel? Is it important to you that the material "breathes" and offers good insulation from heat and cold? Maybe you prefer a pillow made of synthetic or hypo-allergenic material? The more clearly you can describe your preferences, the more likely it is that a knowledgeable salesperson will be able to help you find your ideal pillow.

Don't skimp. Like most things, pillows can differ a great deal in the quality of their construction and materials. They also (naturally) differ a great deal in their price. Buy a better quality pillow if you can, since they're generally made of materials that will provide better support, comfort and durability. But keep in mind that the first priorities are comfort and function. Just because a pillow is expensive doesn't mean it's right for you.

Take the time to "test drive" and compare. Many department stores, mattress retailers and specialty bedding shops will have sample pillows that you can try. If possible, follow the "Ten Minute Rule" and test drive pillows in your favorite sleeping positions. Remember-you and your pillow will be spending about eight hours together every night for several years, so it makes sense to choose wisely now.

Avoid buying a matched set of pillows for yourself and your partner. Keep in mind that your partner probably needs a different pillow that you do.

If you're not sleeping as well as you used to, or if you're waking up with a headache, stiff neck or numbness in your arms or hands, we invite you-and your pillow-to visit our office. As chiropractic physicians, we understand that the way you sleep affects your health. And that your health affects the way you live your life. Sometimes a small thing (like a new pillow) can make a big difference!