How to choose the right pillow

Choose the right pillow to keep neck pain and sleep troubles at bay

woman sleepingHave you ever experienced waking up in the morning tired and sore or with a severe neck pain? If yes, then your pillow could be at fault.

Sleeping on a substandard pillow can cause not just a stiff neck, but even headaches, interrupted sleep, snoring, insomnia, and numbness in arms and hands among other physical conditions.

Your choice of pillow plays an essential role in ensuring that you get good quality sleep and wake up feeling refreshed. Let’s understand the different types of pillows and how to choose one that’s good for you.

Since all of us have unique sleeping positions, it is difficult to generalise the overall selection process. Here we give some basic parameters that you can keep in mind when choosing a pillow.

Sleeping positions

There are three main sleeping positions—on back, on stomach and on side. The pillow has a lot to do with each sleeping position, since each position needs a different level of neck and head support.

  • On back: Those who sleep on their backs need a pillow that will support the head, neck, shoulders and spine. Your cervical spine has a natural curve and the pillow should conform to that curve for maximum support and relaxation.
  • On stomach: Those who tend to sleep on their stomachs need a relatively flat pillow that is just enough to keep the head and neck aligned with the spine. But remember, this sleeping position is not good for your spine.
  • On side: If you sleep on either of your sides, use a pillow that supports your head in line with neck. You should maintain a horizontal posture so that the weight is naturally distributed without exerting undue pressure. The pillow should fill the spaces between your ear and mattress. If your head or neck is tilted, and is not aligned with the rest of the spine, it leads to neck or back pain.

Back or side sleepers need a firmer pillow, whereas stomach sleepers need a softer one. Pillow firmness depends upon the density of a pillow filling—the more the filling, the firmer the pillow. To test the firmness of a pillow, put it on a flat surface and bend in half. If it folds easily, it is soft. If you need to put some force into folding a pillow in half, it probably has a good amount of support.

Types of fillers

The fillers used in the pillow determine its firmness. These play an important role as they perform functions like taking shape as per weight distribution, heat exchange between body and pillow material and temperature monitoring. Here are some popular filler options.

  • Cotton and wool pillows: These are traditionally used in most of the pillows and are not recommended as they deform quickly.
  • Feather and down: Feather and down pillows have been used across the ages and are still popular. Down is more expensive. It is soft, easy to shape or mould onto your head and body, and locks in temperature.
  • Polyester: Polyester is comfortable and less expensive depending on the quality. It does not fluff up the way down does.
  • Foam and latex: Foam and latex pillows tend to last longer than the other types. These are suited for people who need a firm pillow. While foam pillows are cheap, latex pillows are expensive, as they can be moulded in various shapes and sizes.
  • Buckwheat: These are a breather for those who are allergic to down. Buckwheat pillows are filled with little buckwheat husks. They are variable and adjustable and allow your head and neck to be comfortable. Technically, a buckwheat pillow would benefit all three sleeping styles because of the adjustability. These can also be cooled or heated for additional benefits to reduce pain.
  • Memory foam: Memory foam is made from polyurethane, but has a different cell structure than other foams. This structure makes it less ‘springy’ and slower to recover—hence the memory foam as it ‘remembers’ your shape for a while after you’ve moved. Memory foam pillows leave an indentation where the head has been for some time and hence is not recommended for those who move a lot in their sleep. These are expensive; costing up to five times the cost of a polyester-fill pillow.
  • Water-filled pillows: Water-filled pillows gently adjust to constantly support the head and neck in correct posture in side and back sleeping positions.

Tip: If you are allergic, a down or buckwheat pillow may not be suitable for you. Go for a hypoallergenic one such as foam or polyester.

Size and shapes

Usually there are three sizes; standard, medium and large. Keep the size of your bed into account when shopping for the right size. Pillows come in many shapes—round, circular, rectangular are the most common ones. Consult your doctor for the shape that is right for you.

For those suffering from neck problems, there is a special pillow known as a cervical pillow. This pillow is specially designed to provide maximum support to the neck region, reducing any pressure on the neck.

A characteristic of these pillows is that they have a mound for the neck and depression for the head. This helps achieve the correct alignment and relieves tension in the neck. Cervical pillows are commonly available in many shapes—rectangular, square, circle, bone, wedge, U-shape and cylindrical.


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