Sinking into your pillow and feeling all the tension leave your body at the end of each day is one of our most relaxing rituals. However, finding the right bed pillow can be one of the toughest things to do. Pillows that do not fit your sleeping posture and body type, or pillows that are simply poorly designed can lead to a host of physical and health problems. In severe cases, the wrong pillow can lead to acute neck pain and headaches. More commonly, it’ll just be downright uncomfortable as you toss and turn trying to fall asleep. You might also find that you wake up with shoulder aches, a stiff neck, general fatigue, and even lower back pain.
Function of a pillow
- A pillow positions your head such that it is in line with the rest of your spine. The loft required will vary depending on your body and sleeping position. When aligned, your joints in your neck are not flexed and the least stress is placed upon them. If your pillow lifts your head too high or low, you’ll feel like the weight of your head is being borne by the neck joints. You might wake up with acute pain in the neck, shoulder aches. This can even be the cause of lower back pain if the tension pulls the rest of your spine out of position.
People often mistake thick, lofty pillows as supportive ones. If a thick pillow doesn’t allow your head to sink enough, however, it’ll flex your neck upward and actually place stress on the neck joints as well.
- A pillow supports the natural curve in your cervical spine (neck) so that your neck muscles can relax. If your pillow fails to do this, you might wake up with a stiff neck and shoulders.
How to tell if a pillow is right for you
Most pillow selection guides describe what a pillow should do for you – and stop right there. Unless you have X-ray vision and can check your spinal alignment, this is pretty unhelpful and you will not know that the pillow does not work until several nights of bad sleep, or when you develop neck problems several months later.
Here’s a nifty exercise to familiarize with the feeling of netural alignment.
- Stare straight ahead at a point about eye-leve while standing. Relax you shoulders and pull them back slightly. You’ll notice that the weight of your head ‘sits’ right above your shoulders and thoracic spine with little to no engagement from your neck muscles. If you feel your neck and head in this position, you’ll notice a slight natural curve in your neck, and that the back of your head is slightly in front of your back. This is the neutral position.
- Now let your head drop forward as if you are looking straight down at your shoes (or mobile device), while keeping the rest of your body the same. You’ll notice an uncomfortable tension in the base of your neck.
- Let your head fall backward while maintaining the same standing position. You’ll feel a certain pressure and the weight of your head hanging off the middle of your neck. The same can be felt if you let your head fall to each side of your body.
- Your neck is in flexion in each of these positions, which places an unhealthy amount of force on your neck joints. This will lead to acute neck pain, and can even cause lower back problems because it pulls the spine out of position. Neck flexion can also be caused by pillows that are too high or too low.
Here is how a pillow should feel if it is right for you:
- You should feel little to no tension / flexion in your neck joints.
- Your neck muscles should be relaxed instead of trying to support it’s own curvature. If your neck muscles aren’t relaxed, you might feel like you are actively “pushing” your head into the pillow.
- Generally, pillows that conform to and ‘cradle’ your head are going to feel even more comfortable. This is because the supportive pressure is distributed over a larger surface area on your head so you will not wake up with a sore spot.
It is important to test the pillow on your own mattress because the firmness of your mattress may be different from what’s available at a showroom, which will affect your spinal alignment. SleepWiz is one of the few companies that offers a 7-Day Free Trial so you can make absolutely sure that our pillows are suitable for you. It is also recommended that you lie on the pillow for at least a few minutes when testing because certain materials – like memory foam – takes time to fully conform to you.
When is my pillow due a replacement?
The lifespan of your pillow depends on its quality, material, and your maintenance of it. A pillow generally lasts 2-3 years, with higher-end pillows lasting up to 5 years. You should replace your pillows once it flattens enough that your neck starts flexing backward. If you feel like your neck muscles are doing a mini-bridge exercise to hold up the curvature of your neck and pressing your head into the pillow, your pillow is also due a replacement. In short, you should replace your pillow once it no longer feels ideal. With the relatively low prices and long lifespan of pillows, it is simply not worth nights of poor sleep to keep an old pillow.
Classic fiber-filled pillows (polyester, feathers, down) get their spring from a property of the fiber called “crimp”, which is basically the tendency for bent fibers to straighten. With repeated load bearing, the fibers become folded or entangled into small balls and lose their crimp. Fluffing a pillow shuffles the fibers so that they get squashed from a different angle, but the pillow will steadily lose support and plushness until even fluffing doesn’t help anymore.
Foam pillows generally retain their support and plushness better than fiber-filled pillows because these macropolymers are made to compress and re-inflate many, many times over. High-quality foam pillows may feel just as plush and supportive after 5 years, but we strongly recommend not to keep them past this period because mites, mold, and organic matter can accumulate within the foam cells and cause skin / respiratory complications. It is also hard to wash the foam matrix thoroughly.
The classic stuffed pillow
This classic pillow is what comes to mind when we think of a pillow. It consists of a sack stuffed with a crimped fiber like polyester, cotton, feathers, or down. It has been around for a long time and serves the basic function of a pillow, but is less than ideal.
The crimped fibers work like a 3D spring: though the pillow might feel soft to touch with a slight compression, the pushback increases very rapidly with further compression and you might find it almost solid beyond a certain point. This makes the classic pillow really hard to get right. Overstuff it and it’ll flex your neck upward unnaturally, leading to neck pain. Fill it too sparsely and it’ll become unsupportive everywhere.
Another problem with classic stuffed pillows is that it is most packed in the middle, which means that there is most pushback at the head area and least at the neck area. This almost guarantees that your head is either lifted too high, or that you’ll have inadequate neck support.
If the classic stuffed pillow is what you prefer, you should choose something filled with down or feathers. Cotton and polyester fills tend to be less durable, as the fibers get folded and balled quickly which leads to a flatter, less supportive pillow.
Molded Foam Pillows
Molded foam pillows overcome the deficiencies of the classic stuffed pillow because they can be molded into a huge variety shapes that allow the head to be more level while emphasizing neck support. They keep their molded shape and provide very consistent support. This makes them especially suitable for people who’ve had prior neck injuries or surgeries.
One downside is that they can feel overly firm, depending on the foam used. However, you can find these ergonomic pillows made of memory foam for a very small premium, which will feel softer because they conform to your head.
Other complaints some people have is that they simply do not like the weird shape, that it is not plush enough, and that the pillow cannot be fluffed or re-shaped according to their preference.
Shredded memory foam pillows
A shredded memory foam pillow combines the best of classic pillows and memory foam pillows – the adaptive support of memory foam with the luxurious plushness of a classic pillow.
Memory foam has a resistance curve similar to a viscous liquid rather than springs, which allows your head to sink and be aligned while remaining supportive around your neck. This viscoelasticity also allows the pillow to continually adapt to the different amounts of weight placed upon it as you switch positions through the night, and it will still feel medium firm regardless of your sleeping position or pillow height.
Being shredded into irregularly shaped pieces gives the pillow more loft, and allows the pillow to be fluffed and shaped according to one’s preferences. However, this also means that the pillow may not feel precisely the same way every night, nor can it be shaped to provide very specific forms of neck support that may be required by patients with prior neck injuries.
Because the filling is foam, shredded memory foam pillows also tend to maintain their volume and support for a long time just like their molded counterparts. In addition, their shredded nature allows the filling to be washed more thoroughly in a machine, and they are also more breathable.
Buckwheat pillows are actually filled with buckwheat husks rather than the buckwheat seed. They get their springiness from the rigidity of these husks, and also do a good job of conforming to your head because the husks can shift around easily. This tends to keep your head aligned with your spine while supporting your neck, just like memory foam does. The looseness of the husks also make buckwheat pillows very breathable.
The major problem with buckwheat pillows is durability: the natural husks get brittle quickly with time, so they do not last very long without requiring frequent filling replacements to maintain the same level of support. Buckwheat refills are not cheap, which makes this a pricey pillow to maintain.
Another common frustration with buckwheat pillows is that the husks rustle with the slightest movement. However, the shifting of these husks play an important role in the excellent support these pillows provide, so they may not be suitable for sleepers sensitive to noise.
Because buckwheat husks are a byproduct of harvesting buckwheat for consumption, they have to be cleaned properly to get rid of all food particulates on them. There have been reports of buckwheat pillows spawning ants and even mealworms because they have not been properly processed. When purchasing a buckwheat pillow, make sure to shell out a few extra dollars to get them from reputable sources.