Soft or hard, thick or thin, memory foam or latex?
When selecting a pillow, there are many choices. Making the right choice, keeping that pillow clean and knowing when to replace it will affect your sleep quality and potentially how you feel each morning.
There is no single pillow that is best for everyone. And unless you've been waking up with neck pain, proper pillow selection is likely not on your radar. Most people use a pillow that is well past its prime – if it has lost its original shape, become flat or lumpy or has been in regular use longer than a year, it's likely ready for replacement. If that's your case, consider the following recommendations.
Your body shape, size and preferred sleep postures should influence your selection. You want your pillow to adequately support your head and align your neck with the rest of your spine. The softness or firmness of the pillow is a matter of personal preference.
For stomach and back sleepers, choose a low-profile to medium-thickness pillow to keep your head and neck closer to the mattress. Sleeping on your back is generally better for your spine. Placing a smaller pillow under your knees will provide additional support to your lower back.
Side sleepers need to pay special attention to the height of their pillow. Selecting a medium- to high-thickness, firmer pillow will keep your neck aligned with your spine while on your side. In addition, try putting a soft, low-density pillow between your knees to align your upper hip and pelvis with your lower back.
If your sleep posture more closely resembles a wrestling match and you find yourself all over the mattress in a variety of positions, then choose a medium-thickness pillow with little to no contour.
Knowing more about what your pillow is filled with may also affect your choice.
Synthetic pillows are generally among the most affordable. They are lightweight, easy to care for and good for those with allergies. They do have a short lifespan, however, and will flatten out quickly.
Down or feather pillows tend to make the softest pillows. They are easy to shape and are longer lasting. They do not offer a lot of support or height and are not great for side sleepers.
Contoured synthetic foam pillows provide the most precise support. They will retain their contour in support of your head, neck and shoulders, providing relief for pressure points that can cause pain. Dense foam pillows must be contoured to precisely fit your frame and sleep habits. If you move a lot while you sleep, this might not be the pillow for you.
Memory foam pillows will mould to your body, making a precise fit less critical. They are designed to respond to pressure and heat from the body. These pillows are not for everyone as they do retain body heat and will slowly release or "off-gas" formaldehyde. This is unnoticeable to most, but produces allergic responses in those who are chemically sensitive.
Latex pillows are long-lasting, cooler and will mould quicker than most memory foam options. They are also good for allergy sufferers, prohibiting dust mites, but can be on the expensive side and heavier. Latex pillows have some of the highest satisfaction ratings. Selecting the correct height is essential.
Water pillows provide customizable support, height and firmness. But the water bladder makes the pillow heavy and sometimes noisy. If the sound of moving water will keep you awake, stay away from this pillow.
Replace your pillow every year. Hair and body oils soak into the pillow after a year's use and are a breeding ground for odour-causing bacteria and dust mites. Dust mites are a major indoor trigger for people with allergies and asthma. Purchasing a zippered pillow protector can double the pillow's lifespan. Washing your pillow every three months will keep it free of debris and dust mites to a minimum.
Dr. Dwight Chapin, B.Sc(H)., D.C., is the clinic director of High Point Wellness Centre in Mississauga, team chiropractor for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts and on-site clinician for employees of The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter @HighPtWellness.