Laying your head down on a pillow at night seems like it should be a foolproof way to get the rest you need and wake up without any muscle stiffness, spasms, or pain. But, of course, it’s not.
Often, pillows seem perfectly comfortable and supportive when you lie down on them, but that can change as the night progresses. Maybe what seemed like a comfortable and supported position at first wasn’t really — your neck and back will protest in the morning. Maybe your pillow just doesn’t have the chops to support your head and neck all night long. Maybe it’s just time to get a new pillow.
To get the support you need from your pillows, you need to make sure you’re replacing them every one to two years. You should choose pillow filling that provides true support for your neck and head — and make sure your head pillows are properly shaped and contoured to support your head and cervical spine. And it’s not just your head that needs the support of a pillow — lumbar pillows, knee pillows, wedge pillows, and body pillows can all help keep you comfortable and supported all night long, so you feel refreshed and relaxed when you wake up.
Down-filled pillows feel fluffy and nice when you first lay your head down on them, but they quickly lose their ability to support your head properly. The down filling moves when you do, and gets squished down over the course of the night. You can’t wake up to fluff your pillow every half hour, and sleeping with a down pillow all but guarantees that you’ll wake up with a sore neck.
Memory foam pillows may be the best choice when it comes to providing support for your head and neck throughout the night. In one study, a roll-shaped orthopedic pillow filled with polypropylene capsules provided the best support for the head and neck, followed closely by memory foam contour pillows. Foam pillows conform to the shape of the body to provide firm support. They don’t get squished down in the night and they spring back into shape when you move around.
If you sleep hot, buckwheat-filled pillows are another good option. Buckwheat sleeps cool and conforms well to the shape of your body. Buckwheat pillows are heavier than foam or down-filled pillows and they provide firm support, but they might still keep you awake for another reason — they can be loud. The buckwheat hulls inside the pillow can create rustling noises as the filling moves at night, so that’s something to keep in mind if you want to try a buckwheat pillow.
Regardless of whether you’re a side, stomach, or back sleeper, you should always have good spinal alignment when you’re lying in bed. That means your hips and shoulders should be stacked so that your entire spine is straight. Your head should be supported so that your neck remains straight while you’re lying in bed. Your chin shouldn’t be ticking down towards your chest, nor should it be falling back to point at the ceiling.
You’ll need to shop for a pillow that’s the right thickness to accommodate your favorite sleeping position. If you sleep on your back, you’ll need a pillow that’s four to six inches thick to support your head, neck, and shoulders. If you sleep on your side, you need a pillow that’s thick enough to cradle your head and keep your neck aligned with the rest of your spine. If you sleep on your stomach, you need a thin pillow so that your cervical spine isn’t twisted into a weird position.
To really support your whole body during sleep, you need more than just a pillow for your head. If you have chronic back pain or other health issues that make it easier to sleep in an elevated position, you can use a wedge pillow. If you sleep on your side, you can place a lumbar pillow between your knees to keep your hips and spine aligned.
Body pillows are a great option for supporting your whole body during sleep — especially if you want to unlearn stomach sleeping, which isn’t great for your spine. Snuggling up to a body pillow can give you the pressure on your abdomen and chest that you’ve grown accustomed to as a stomach sleeper, while supporting you in a healthier side-sleeping position. You can even buy J-shaped body pillows meant to support your head and neck as well as the rest of your torso.
If you’re waking up stiff, tired, and in pain, it’s time to make a change — to your pillows. The right pillows in the right combination can keep you comfortably cradled all night long, so you can sleep without pain, and wake up feeling truly rejuvenated.