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Is it Time to Replace Your Pillow?

Author imageThe Mattress Warehouse

Have you ever tried to sleep without a pillow? I’m not referring to the forty winks one might catch on a train or aeroplane. I’m talking about trying to get a full night’s sleep without a pillow. On the very few occasions I was forced to do this, it was remarkably uncomfortable. Not only was it nearly impossible to fall asleep, but I also paid the price with a very stiff neck the following mornings.

Have you considered replacing your pillow?

The humble pillow is the only piece of sleep gear people normally have, apart from their beds. (Unless you own one of those “sleeping masks” that makes the wearer look like the Phantom of the Opera.) Yet, as essential as pillows are for a good night’s rest, they are often neglected. People tend to use whatever pillow comes their way, without taking a critical look at the comfort it provides.

Pillowless in The Wild

Curiously, it was precisely the lack of a proper pillow that made me realise that I needed a new one. A few years ago, I had unexpectedly been invited to join a hiking expedition in a remote mountainous area, closed to the general public. I jumped at the chance, and in my haste neglected to pack a very important piece of gear: my trusty inflatable pillow. I only realised this when I unrolled my sleeping gear after a long day’s hike over difficult terrain.

So I improvised: stuffed a towel and some clothes into a T-shirt and voila, I had a pillow. It wasn’t perfect – somewhat lumpy and too firm – but a pillow nonetheless. To my surprise, I slept soundly. And my neck, which I expected to be sore and stiff, was fine. No pain, no stiffness and no cracking of vertebrae. The rest of my body was feeling the effects of sleeping on the ground, but my neck felt great. I was better off with this improvised pillow than with my normal pillow at home.

It was a revelation. Purely because of habit, I had not cast a critical eye upon my current pillows. I looked everywhere else for reasons for my sometimes stiff and sore neck. After my improvised-pillow experience, I realised that I had been using a pillow that was too low. And, even more surprisingly, too soft.

This brings us to the all-important determining factor when it comes to pillows: the right height.

The Right Pillow Height

Your neck (and, by implication, your spine) will tell you if your pillow is not the right height. The thing is, you have to listen. Even if your neck tells you it is slightly uncomfortable upon waking up, pay attention. I ignored the slight and occasional discomfort of a stiff neck for too long. Somehow, my pillow as the culprit seemed impossible. It was not.

Let’s get deeper into the technical side of the right pillow height. The same rules that apply to your mattress, apply to your pillow too. For a comfortable night’s sleep, your spine should be straight. In other words, the vertebrae should be aligned. This goes for the cervical (neck) vertebrae too. And this is where your pillow height comes in. It should help to align your neck with the rest of your spine. (If you get this right, it will also improve your posture as an added bonus.)

Your pillow should not force your neck upwards or let it bend downwards. It should be held on a level plane, in line with your spine. Whether you like a soft feather pillow or a firmer foam pillow, the end result should be a straight spine from your neck downwards. In other words, check the compressed height of a soft pillow and go with that.

The ideal pillow height will differ with body size, but will probably be between 100 – 150 mm. The other factor to take into account is your favourite sleeping position:

For The Appropriate Sleeping Position

The ideal pillow height for sleeping on your back or side will probably be different. There are two ways of dealing with this. You can either narrow it down and choose one sleeping position, or you could go for the golden mean. That would be a pillow height that is comfortable enough in both positions.

Choose the right pillow for your sleeping position to align your spine in a straight line.

There is a third way to deal with this. You can have different pillows on hand. Personally, I follow this approach. I have a firm-ish thicker pillow and a flimsy thinner pillow, both filled with goose down. Having established the ideal pillow height before, I employ these two pillows with great success. The three simple choices in pillow height they provide are more than enough for me. The comfort can be astounding at times.

You can even get a bit creative and use pillows for other body parts. In doing so, you can relieve pressure and help with the alignment of your spine or hips. On a more serious note, pillows are also useful in alleviating medical conditions of the spinal variety.

So – Check Your Neck

Examine how your neck feels the moment you wake up and move your head for the first time. If you experience pain, stiffness or cracking vertebrae, it’s probably due to incorrect pillow height. You should then consider replacing your pillow.

Is Your Pillow Getting on in Years?

Your old pillow could be triggering allergies and spoiling your sleep.

Pillows accumulate some weight as they age. As strange as that sounds, it is an uncomfortable and unflattering fact we have to take note of. There are many different sources quoting different sets of figures, but there is a consensus that some pillows gain weight over time. This is due to the accumulation of dead skin cells, hair and the presence of dust mites.

That does sound rather bad. The idea of a thriving little ecosystem in one’s pillow is unpleasant. Certain feather/down pillows are the main culprits. Polyester pillows (including the microfibre variety) are less likely to gain weight in this way, but they need to be replaced more often to be on the safe side.

Foam pillows are immune to this age-related problem and are hypoallergenic.

Another age-related symptom pillows suffer from is compression. Over time, certain materials lose their “spring” or “bounce”, especially in the area where your head lies. This can lead to decreased pillow height. What’s more, it is not always obvious, as it happens quite slowly.

Ready To Replace Your Pillow?

You are spoilt for choice. Here’s a quick guide:

1. Feather (down)

A very popular and enduring choice, allows you to go from soft to firm and everything in between. As long as you wash them regularly and puff them daily, they are quite durable. Down pillows, however, can be a bit expensive.

Keep your down pillow clean and fresh to ensure maximum longevity.

2. Polyester

Most pillows manufactured today are polyester pillows. They are inexpensive and provide a fair level of comfort and support for their price. Generally, you will pay for quality, so the more expensive ones are likely to offer better support and last longer.

3. Foam

Solid foam pillows are a fairly recent development. There are two basic types – natural latex and memory foam. Natural latex pillows are durable, hypoallergenic and offer great support and breathability. What’s more, they’re antimicrobial while being mildew and dust mite resistant.

Memory foam pillows offer very effective support while alleviating pressure in spots where it could be uncomfortable. Memory foam moulds itself around your unique shape, keeping your neck in the ideal position for spine alignment. Similarly, these pillows are breathable, hypoallergenic and dust mite resistant. They are also very durable.

And finally…

Pillows stuffed with wool, once common, are now a rare luxury. Their popularity is impeded by their price, which is a pity. They come out tops in almost all categories. Wool is hypoallergenic and doesn’t lose its shape easily. It draws moisture away from the surface, thereby preventing dust mites and the build-up of fungi. Furthermore, it is easily washable and dries almost instantly.

Once a common pillow stuffing, wool today can be one of the most expensive pillow fillings.

As an honourable mention, I have to include water pillows. A water pouch is placed at the core of the pillow and padded with soft materials. Apparently, it offers great support which is “adjustable” by adding or pouring out some of the water.

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