A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Pillow talk: Choose the right pillow for good support

Woman sleeping comfortably on pillow

An ergonomically-designed pillow provides support for the hollow area in the back of the neck, the cervical lordosis.

If you wake up in the morning with achiness, muscle tightness and a sore neck, your pillow might be the culprit.

A pillow should give you firm support but there’s not one that’s right for everybody, said Ron Jensen, a Marshfield Clinic physical therapist. Part of his role is to talk with patients recovering from accidents or spinal problems about best options for pillows.

Support for your neck important

“Your pillow should provide adequate support for your neck, in a neutral straight position for the most comfort,” he said.

Keep in mind that when you sleep, you spend seven to eight hours on your pillow so it’s worth getting it right.

Some manufacturers bill their product as the best for anyone, but that’s not possible. For example, a small-shouldered woman lying on her side may not need a thick pillow but her husband, if he’s bigger, may need more thickness to prevent neck strain caused by his head dropping down.

Pillows vary mostly by size and fill which determines how full it is. An ergonomically-designed pillow will usually have support for the cervical lordosis, the hollow area in the back of the neck. Several studies found pillows about four inches thick work well for many people.

Don’t pay too much

You can buy pillows for as little as $30-40 in stores or online. Jensen said prices can top out at well over $200 but he doesn’t recommend people spend that much. Good quality can be found for a reasonable price.

“I like to give people lots of options and educate them about making good choices,” he said, “but it’s really a personal choice.”

Avoid feathers

In general, several studies have shown feather pillows do not perform as well as latex or synthetic pillows. And while some may tout contour, evidence suggests it has no clear advantage over a regular shape although it may perform better for some people.

As for pillow maintenance, he recommends you launder a washable pillow, not one containing down or feathers, about every six months. The label should indicate whether it’s washable. He also urges pillows be replaced every one to two years for hygiene as well as support.

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