Did you know that your head weighs 4.5-5.5 kilos (10-12lbs)? And that your neck contains seven of the spine’s 33 vertebrae? Did you also realise that neck pain, stiff necks and even persistent headaches could simply be the result of poor pillow support while in bed sleeping?
A good pillow should hold your head in the correct alignment – that is, in the same relation to your shoulders and spine as if you were standing upright with the correct posture. One that is too soft will allow the head to flop, curving the neck. One that is too hard will give you a crick in the neck.
As with shopping for a new bed, you should try out different types of pillows before making your final decision. If possible you should try out the pillow (or pillows) on a bed where you can lie down on your side. Ask someone to check if your neck and upper back are in a straight line. The pillows should be tucked well into the neck and shoulder to support the head fully.
Too many pillows will cause the spine to curve upwards and the skin to crease on the top of your neck. Too low or thin a pillow will make the spine curve downwards and cause a crease on the underside of the neck.
Remember, it’s fine to sleep on your back or sides but if possible avoid sleeping on your tummy, which puts a lot of strain on your neck as it is permanently twisted throughout the night.
It is a matter of personal choice whether you prefer to achieve the correct head and neck support with one or more pillows – but they should be able to retain their shape and give you constant support throughout the night
Pillows come filled with synthetic fibres, foams or down and feathers. The most popular are the polyester filled type – available in a variety of feels from very soft to very firm – and a broad range of prices. Better quality polyester pillows can be machine-washed. Branded fibres are often an assurance of quality.
Down/feather pillows offer a luxurious give and excellent durability. Many also wash very well. The softness – and cost – will go up in proportion to the percentage of down it contains. Check on the type of feathers used: chicken feathers are straight and have to be artificially curled – a treatment which eventually wears off. They might also smell!
The casing will be important too: the weave must be very fine to prevent feathers working their way through. Check labels carefully for quality assurance and beware: some people can have an allergic reaction to down or feathers.
Foam and latex pillows tend to be firm with a definite bounce to them. They hold their shape very well and are considered hypo-allergenic. However it is recommended that special barrier covers are also used by anyone with asthma or other breathing problems or eczema.
Specially moulded neckcare pillows are usually made from foam or latex – and are often intended for use in conjunction with another, softer pillow. The price range is again broad. Also available are lumbar support pillows to prop you up comfortably in bed.
Pillow dimensions can vary too – although the standard size is between 71-74cm x 46-48cm (28-29in x 18-19in). You may prefer the square, continental style pillow, 65 x 65cm (26in square).
Because pillows affect your sleeping posture and lie next to your skin and your nostrils, it is a good idea to invest in quality pillows and replace them at least every two or three years for a healthy sleeping environment. When they have lost their ‘loft’ (height) and become lumpy, discoloured or misshapen they are definitely ready for replacement. Remember, an old, unwashed pillow could also contain as much as 10% of its weight in skin scale mould dead and living dust mites and their allergen laden droppings!