Necks are vulnerable. Just carrying around the weight of your head all day creates pressure in the cervical vertebrae and connective tissues. Your head is about eight percent of your body’s mass. If you work at a desk or use repetitive body motion during the day, your head and neck may not be held in an ideal position. The position of your neck during sleep should create as little strain as possible so those fatigued muscles can relax and recover.
The goal is to keep your body well aligned at night. When you’re lying down, your spine should be straight with one vertebra aligned above the next. If you happen to do yoga, you could consider this a horizontal version of the pose called “The Mountain.”
When you add a pillow to your sleeping pose, good neck alignment is easier said than done. There are many variables involved; here we’ll explore them in more detail.
Height and Weight of the Individual
A 6’4” football player who weighs 260 pounds will need a more supportive pillow than a petite 5’ 2” woman who weighs 110 pounds. That’s because his larger, heavier musculature exerts more downward force than hers will. So, for him to stay aligned (all other factors being equal), he needs a firmer pillow, and she’ll need something softer.
Back, Stomach or Side Sleeper?
When you sleep on your back, you can usually get by with a small pillow. If you’re on your stomach, you may need none at all. A side sleeper needs a well-stuffed pillow for good neck support; it should fill in the entire space between your shoulder and the side of your head.
This makes the biggest difference in choosing a pillow’s thickness or height. For instance, if you sleep on your side on a very firm mattress, you’ll need a thick pillow. If you sleep on your back and love to “sink” into to a soft mattress, you may need no pillow at all. If you sleep on your stomach, you probably will be better off with either no pillow or a fairly low one so your neck won’t be forced into an angle.
Pillow Shape and Material
Most formed bed pillows come in two primary shapes: soap shaped (a simple rectangle, like a bar of soap) and contoured. A contour pillow has high curved edges to provide extra stability and support for the neck and a depression in the center to cradle the head. Formed pillows are solid; some people find it more difficult to adjust to a pillow they can’t change. Other pillows are filled with either fiber or batting. The fill or contents of many styles can be shifted around to adjust to changes in your position during the night.
The right pillow is an often-overlooked but very important piece of a comfortable sleeping system. Choose your new pillows with care and use the old ones for a pillow fight!