3 Ways Your Pillow Affects Your Health

We think a lot about what type of mattress and sheets we like, and how those things can affect our sleep. But have you spent enough time thinking about your pillow, too? As it turns out, the right pillow can really help you get a good night’s sleep — and a pillow that’s a bad fit for you could affect your health in negative ways.

The wrong pillow could cause neck stiffness or pain.

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According to the Harvard Health Letter website, pillows that are too soft or too hard can lead to neck pain or even spinal pain. “If your neck is bent in any way for an extended period of time, you’ll get uncomfortable,” physical therapist Matthew O’Rourke explained. O’Rourke told the site that certain pillows can hyperextend your neck, twist your neck, or offer inadequate support.

The Harvard Medical School’s Healthbeat website offers some options to fix this: “If you sleep on your back, choose a rounded pillow to support the natural curve of your neck, with a flatter pillow cushioning your head. This can be achieved by tucking a small neck roll into the pillowcase of a flatter, softer pillow, or by using a special pillow that has a built-in neck support with an indentation for the head to rest in.”

To learn more about the best pillows for neck pain, click here. 

An unsupportive pillow could also cause pain in your shoulders, back, and arms.

If you have a pillow that doesn’t adequately support your neck other muscles and ligaments may be affected, too. To avoid pain from an unsupportive pillow in the rest of your body, try and choose an option that allows your head, neck, and spine to be in a straight line (or in a neutral alignment).

Finding the right pillow will depend on your personal preferences as well as your primary sleep position. People who sleep on their sides tend to need more loft and support than stomach sleepers, who typically need a flatter pillow option.

Your pillow could be harboring dust mites, spores, and other nasty things.

“Night after night of sleeping on a pillow causes it to absorb body oil, dead skin cells, and hair,” Sleep.org, a National Sleep Foundation website, explains. “This isn’t just gross-sounding—it can also make the pillow smell and, what’s worse, can create the perfect environment for dust mites (common allergens).” Per the Mayo Clinic website, dust mite allergies can trigger sneezing, coughing, a runny nose, itchy eyes, nasal congestion, and an itchy feeling in your throat or mouth.

How to know when it’s time for a new pillow.

Not sure when to replace your pillow? Here’s what Sleep.org recommends: “Check to see if any foam or batting in the pillow is lumpy and, if it’s a feather pillow, ask yourself if you constantly have to fluff it up to support your head or if it still does it on its own. Another test: Fold it in half and see if it stays that way. If it does, it’s time for a new one.”

Joe Auer

Joe is the editor of Mattress Clarity. When he isn't testing sleep products, he enjoys working out, reading, and playing classical piano.

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