Should You Be Using Pillows While Sleeping?


8 Min Read

Think of an inviting bed and, invariably, you'll have visions of soft, downy pillows waiting for you to sink into. When it comes to getting a good night’s rest, your pillow may have a bigger role to play than you'd imagine. The number of pillows you use and the kind you choose may be responsible for some of the inexplicable aches you’ve been having. While your pillow choice should be one that keeps your spine in as neutral a position as possible, not all pillows can do that for everyone. In fact, each person in the family may need a different kind of pillow, and some may not need them at all from a health perspective at least.

Think of an inviting bed and, invariably, you’ll have visions of soft, downy pillows waiting for you to sink into. When it comes to getting a good night’s rest, your pillow may have a bigger role to play than you’d imagine. Choose wrong or place your pillow in an awkward position, and you could end up with a bad lower back, headaches, a stiff neck, or worse. As researchers have found, depending on the shape and material of the pillow you pick, your cervicothoracic spine position is altered as you rest.1

Get Pillows Designed For You

The world is a mix of side sleepers, back sleepers, and stomach sleepers. Depending on which one you are, you may find not all pillows work for you.

Here’s a look at the types of pillows you should choose.

  • Stomach sleepers: Doctors caution against sleeping on the stomach, but if this is a natural position for you, a thin pillow will do fine for your head while a firm one should go beneath your stomach and hips.
  • Side sleepers: Get a firm pillow that is able to bridge the distance between your outer shoulder and ear and offer you that extra support.
  • Back sleepers: Steer clear of overly thick pillows that push your head forward and leave you with a crick in the neck by morning.2

Also take care to pick a material that works for you. Pillows typically come in a choice of polyester, which is easily washable and soft; down, which is uber-soft but can be harder to maintain; and memory foam or foam, which offers more support. Latex pillows are also very firm and resistant to both mold and dust. Hypoallergenic pillows made from cotton and wool minimize allergies but are not ideal for anyone who likes their pillows soft and squishy.

The Risks Of Incorrect Pillow Usage

Using the wrong kind of pillow or one that’s too high or low could leave you with a host of niggling aches and pains or even severe allergies.

Headaches And Stiff Necks

Using multiple pillows or those that are too high below your head causes your neck and head to rest at an awkward tilted angle.The spine doesn’t keep its natural contours in this case. This strains your back and neck and can leave you with bad headaches or a stiff neck. One of the symptoms of a bad neck that has deteriorated further is torticollis or “wry neck,” causing painful muscular spasms of the neck. Studies have found that using chiropractic intervention which includes exercises and lessons on pillow positioning, the problem can be overcome.3

Material Matters: Worsening Your Aches

When you have a bad back, the material of the pillow is as important as the shape and size. Memory foam is great for people with allergies because it doesn’t retain dust as much as other material. For people with a bad back, the opposite is true and this kind of material can be painful because of the stiffness. A separate study found that latex pillows were best for helping overcome headaches and bad arm pain. On the other hand, using foam contour or polyester pillows was likely to worsen cervical stiffness.4

Allergies And Acne

One study found an alarming 4 to 16 types of fungi per pillow during a test of contamination of bedding. Synthetic pillows fared worst.5 Pillows are a magnet for dust and, by extension, dust mites. Some synthetic pillows tend to gather a lot of dust, unlike those made from hypoallergenic materials and foam pillows. Be sure to wash your pillows every three months or so, more often if you have severe allergies. You could also consider using slip cases or covers for your pillows to keep them fresh longer.

Sleep Problems

Sometimes, the wrong pillow can even cost you sleep or add to sleep disorders. If your pillow is too hard or too soft, and the resultant pain and awkward position of your neck are rousing you at midnight, you may need a new pillow. The same applies if you have been waking up because your pillow makes you hot and sweaty. In a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 91 percent of people surveyed said pillows were important for getting a good night’s sleep.6

SIDS In Babies

The use of pillows has been identified as one of the risk factors in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). This was especially true of babies who slept face down. Avoiding pillow usage or using specially designed baby pillows created to deter the risk of SIDS and prevent smothering are an alternative.7

Neurodevelopmental Problems In Children

The flame retardant chemical polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) added to some pillows can cause big problems for little children. From cognitive problems and decreased attention to impacting fine motor coordination, exposure to these chemicals can lead to a host of neurodevelopmental delays in school-age kids.8

Polyurethane foam pillows have much higher levels of these chemicals (3,646 parts per million) than feather/down(6 parts per million) or even polyester ones (107 parts per million).9

Position It Right

Getting the position of your pillow right is also important. If you lie on your back as you sleep, try placing a pillow below your knees to level off your body and reduce the pressure your lower back would normally have to bear. This extra pillow will also help keep your spine in a natural position without straining the back. Be careful that the pillow for your head is not too high as this will again cause your back to be stressed.

Side sleepers do well with an extra pillow between the knees to ease the pressure felt on the lower back and hips. Stomach sleepers, on the other hand, are better off with a firm pillow below their stomach and hips to lower strain on the back and neck.10 If you can manage without a pillow under your head, that’s ideal. However, if you do use one, be sure to have it positioned so you can keep your head tilted downward, not to the right or left completely. Down pillows are convenient for giving side sleepers the extra support in the bottom third of the pillow because all you have to do is push the stuffing to that portion of the pillow and lie down to a good night’s rest.

The right pillow could solve many of your neck, sleep, and headache problems linked to sleeping comfort. A good pillow for people with such problems would be one that gives support but is also soft and comfortable. One study found that 40 of 52 patients with neck trouble and headaches saw an improvement with their neck pain easing after using specially designed neck pillows. Additionally, 77 percent found they slept better and 61 percent saw their headache problem diminishing with the use of the right pillow.11 If that isn’t reason enough to go out and trade in your old pillow for a new one, what is?

References   [ + ]

1.Gordon, Susan J., Karen A. Grimmer-Somers, and Patricia H. Trott. “A randomized, comparative trial: does pillow type alter cervico-thoracic spinal posture when side lying?.” Journal of multidisciplinary healthcare 4 (2011): 321.
2.Sams, Tim. ABC’s of Pain Relief and Treatment: Advances, Breakthroughs, and Choices. iUniverse, 2006.
3.Toto, B. J. “Chiropractic correction of congenital muscular torticollis.” Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics 16, no. 8 (1993): 556-559.
4.Gordon, Susan J., Karen A. Grimmer-Somers, and Patricia H. Trott. “Pillow use: the behavior of cervical stiffness, headache and scapular/arm pain.” Journal of pain research 3 (2010): 137-145.
5.Woodcock, A. A., N. Steel, C. B. Moore, S. J. Howard, A. Custovic, and D. W. Denning. “Fungal contamination of bedding.” Allergy 61, no. 1 (2006): 140-142.
6.There’s No Place Like Home for Sleep According to New National Sleep Foundation Bedroom Poll, National Sleep Foundation.
7.Thompson, John MD, Bradley T. Thach, David MO Becroft, Edwin A. Mitchell, and New Zealand Cot Death Study Group. “Sudden infant death syndrome: risk factors for infants found face down differ from other SIDS cases.” The Journal of pediatrics 149, no. 5 (2006): 630-633.
8.Eskenazi, Brenda, Jonathan Chevrier, Stephen A. Rauch, Katherine Kogut, Kim G. Harley, Caroline Johnson, Celina Trujillo, Andreas Sjodin, and Asa Bradman. “In utero and childhood polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) exposures and neurodevelopment in the CHAMACOS study.” Environmental Hazards and Neurodevelopment: Where Ecology and Well-Being Connect (2015): 285.
9.Imm, Pamela, Lynda Knobeloch, Carol Buelow, and Henry A. Anderson. “Household exposures to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in a Wisconsin Cohort.” Environmental health perspectives (2009): 1890-1895.
10.Isphording, J., Get Healthy, Get Happy: How to Make Small Changes that Give You Big Results. Clerisy Press. 2013.
11.Persson, Liselott. “Neck pain and pillows–A blinded study of the effect of pillows on non-specific neck pain, headache and sleep.” Advances in Physiotherapy 8, no. 3 (2006): 122-127.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.