Pillow Talk: Finding the Best Pillow For You

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Think fast: When was the last time you replaced your pillow? Years? Can’t even remember when? As a general rule, you should replace your pillows every 12 to 18 months – that’s about how long it takes for them to wear out and lose their shape. So, if you can’t remember the last time you’ve replaced your pillows, it’s probably time! Waking up with a stiff neck or stuffing your hands underneath your pillow to support your head are other telltale signs that it’s time to toss your current cushion.

Finding the right pillow can be a daunting task. There are so many to choose from and the manufacturers slap intriguing health claims on the packages. To help guide you, we asked One Medical’s New York osteopathic physician, Natasha Withers, to share her top recommendations.

When you’re searching for the right pillow, remember two rules: First, more expensive is not always better. And second, you need a pillow that keeps your spine in a neutral position when you lie down. A neutral spine is one in which the natural curves of your whole spine–lower back, upper back, and neck–are intact. When your spine is neutral, the weight of your body and the forces of gravity are distributed evenly along your disks and you reduce the possibility of straining the muscles around your spine. (If you’ve ever slept on a hotel pillow that was too hard or too soft, causing your neck to feel cranked up too high or drooped down too low, you know what it’s like when your spine is not neutral.)

The right pillow will help you maintain a neutral spine when sleeping on your back or side, but sleeping on your belly should be avoided if possible, as it often causes neck strain.

Best for Allergies

If you have health problems like allergies or sensitivity to smell, select a hypoallergenic pillow that is unable to harbor mold or dust mites and has no chemical odors. Latex, organic wool, or organic cotton are your best bets. Steer clear of goose down.

Best for Back Sleepers

If you have back pain, it can be helpful to sleep on your back. For back-sleepers, I recommend placing a pillow or two under your knees (to keep your lower back in its neutral curve), and find a pillow that supports the natural curve of your neck. Neck roll pillows often accomplish this, but I recommend trying a homemade neck roll pillow before you commit to buying one. You can do this by rolling up a towel and placing it inside your pillow case. If it feels comfortable and you are pain free in the morning, it might be worth purchasing a proper neck roll.

If you struggle to stay on your back for the entire sleep, consider this simple trick: Place a tennis ball in each pocket of your pajama pants. When you roll to the side and sense the tennis ball there, you’ll naturally roll on to your back.

Best for Side Sleepers

If you sleep on your side, try placing at least one pillow in between your knees to help maintain a neutral spine. The height of the pillow underneath your head should be comfortable and not place any pressure on your neck. It should be firm enough to support your head and keep it in line with the rest of your spine, but not too thick that it creates strain.

Best for Restless Types

If you like to adjust your pillow to your sleeping position, a down feather pillow might work well for you. This type of pillow can be molded into different positions and heights as you change positions.

No matter which type of pillow you choose, look for a store that allows you to try the pillow in the store.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.