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Buying a New Pillow 

Are you waking up with a stiff or sore neck? Are you waking up with a headache? If the answer to either question is yes, then you may be using the wrong pillow. Sleeping on a pillow that is the wrong shape, size or density for your build can cause neck pain and headaches. Sleeping on a pillow that is worn and has lost its support can also cause pain. Pillows should be replaced as soon as they start wear out. Pillows will last anywhere from about six months to about 10 years depending on their quality and the material from which they are made.



How to Choose the Right Pillow

Choosing a pillow is a very personal thing. What is right for someone else will not necessarily work for you. There are, however, some basic principles to help you.

Your pillow should support your neck while cushioning your head and should allow you to roll over with relative ease. Your pillow should suit your body size and shape. Generally a small woman will be more comfortable on a lower, softer pillow whereas a large man will need a higher, firmer pillow.

Buy a better quality pillow if you can. Better quality pillows are usually made from materials that will give you better support and comfort and will last longer. But remember it must be comfortable, just because a pillow is expensive, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will suit you.

The position you sleep in will also help to determine your best choice of pillow. When you lie on your back, your head and neck should be supported in a neutral position that doesn't allow your head to tilt back or force your chin into your chest. If you sleep mainly on your back then a slightly lower pillow would be better for you.

When your lie on your side, the pillow should hold your spine straight by supporting your neck while cushioning your head. If you sleep mainly on your side then a choose a pillow that will be able to bolster your neck while letting your head sink in. Make sure there is no gap between your neck and the pillow.

Where to Buy the Right Pillow

Go to a retailer who has a large range of pillows. Larger department stores and specialist bedding shops will often have sample pillows that you can try out. If the retailer also sells mattresses then you can lie on the pillow for 10 minutes or so in the store, on a mattress that is similar to your own. A good pillow will last you quite a few years and you will be spending about 8 hours every night sleeping on it so it’s worth spending a little time in the store to make sure you get the right one! Try rolling into different positions to make sure that it is easy to move on the pillow and that it is comfortable in all your normal sleeping positions. Check that you are well supported and that there is no gap between your neck and the pillow. It could take five days or longer to get used to your new pillow, so you may not notice immediate relief.

Avoid buying a "matching" pillow for your partner, your partner may need a different pillow to you.

Which Type of Pillow to Choose

There are a number of different types of pillows from which to choose. They range greatly in price, materials used and quality.

Latex Pillows

Latex is a natural product made from a fully renewable source. It is made from the sap of the rubber tree. Latex pillows wear well and last for years. Latex provides good support for the neck whilst still offering comfortable cushioning for the head. Latex has the added advantage of being hypo-allergenic, making it a good choice for those with asthma and hay fever. Latex comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and densities and it is important to choose the right one for you. Recently researchers from the James Cook University in Queensland compared five common pillow types, polyester, feather, foam contour, regular shaped foam and latex rubber. They asked 106 volunteers to sleep for a week on each of the pillow types and recorded whether their night symptoms had eased, whether they were waking with pain or stiffness, their comfort on the pillows and their sleep quality. The researchers found that the latex rubber pillows consistently performed the best for all measures. (1)

Fibre Filled Pillows

Fibre filled pillows are usually filled with man-made fibres such as polyester. Good quality fibre filled pillows provide good cushioning, comfort and support. Some types have a "bouncy" feel giving good cushioning and others have a filling that can be moved around to mould into your neck. Fibre filled pillows can also be made from natural fibres, most commonly wool, which gives softness, support. Wool "breathes" well giving good insulation from both cold and heat. Very cheap fibre filled pillows tend to lose their supportive qualities within a few months and should be relegated to the spare bed.

Feather and Down Pillows

Feather and down pillows are usually made with a combination of feathers and down. The more down, the more expensive. Pillows with a high percentage of down are usually softer and last much longer. Feathers are harder and flatten out much more quickly. Feather and down pillows can be moulded and shaped for your neck allowing for good support and comfort.

Foam Pillows

Foam pillows come in different heights, shapes and densities. Better quality foam will keep its shape for years, however, cheaper foams lose their supportiveness quite quickly. A good foam pillow will give you good support and comfort. It is important to choose the right shape and density for your build.

Memory Foam Pillows

Memory foam is a heat and weight sensitive visco-elastic polyurethane foam that moulds to your body shape. It was originally designed by NASA for the seats of their spacecraft. These days it is used extensively in hospitals in pillows and mattress overlays for patients with limited mobility to reduce the occurrence of pressures sores. A memory foam pillow moulds to the shape of your neck and head to give even support and to reduce pressure on the sensitive areas such as the jaw and ear. As the pillow moulds to your shape it can be harder to roll over in your sleep. Movement is needed while you are sleeping to maintain good circulation and joint mobility during the night. If your movement is limited at night, you may find that you wake feeling stiff and sore. When testing a memory foam pillow, try lying on one for about 10 minutes, then see if you can still roll easily. If you can, then a memory foam pillow may suit you, if not, look at a different pillow type. There are now new memory foams that mould and re-mould more quickly, making turning easier.

Contour Pillows

Contour pillows can be made of foam, memory foam or latex and may be suitable for some people. They were designed for people who sleep on their backs and may help to reduce snoring by keeping the neck straight and the airways open. Research has shown that side sleepers who slept on contour pillows reported the pillows were less comfortable and resulted in poorer sleep quality. (2)

Caring for your Pillow

A pillow will last longer if it is looked after. Flip and rotate your pillow regularly, so that you are not always sleeping on the same edge. Some pillows can be washed, check the label on your pillow for washing instructions. If it is not washable then air it regularly. A pillow protector will help to reduce mould and staining on your pillow, but make sure that the protector doesn't reduce the comfort of your pillow by being too thick or rigid. Research shows that it may take about 5 days to get used to your new pillow, so you may find that it takes a few days to feel comfortable with your new pillow. (2)

  • Choose the pillow based on comfort.

  • Buy the best quality you can afford.

  • Make sure your neck is well supported in good alignment with no gaps between you and the pillow.

  • Make sure you can roll over on the pillow with ease.

  • Lie on a mattress with the pillow in the shop for 10 minutes or longer to make sure it is comfortable. Some of the larger department stores and specialist bedding shops will have sample pillows that you can try in the store.

Remember, you spend about 8 hours a night sleeping on your pillow, that's a third of your life, so it's important to get the right pillow!

At Sutherland Shire Physiotherapy Centre we have a special interest in the treatment of postural problems, headaches, neck, back, upper limb and jaw conditions. If you are waking with neck pain or a headache, why not give us a call?


Call today to schedule an appointment with one of our physiotherapists.

Please note that the above information is of a general nature and is not intended to substitute for professional advice. If you have an injury or condition, you should always seek the advice of your qualified health practitioner to attain specific advice relating to your needs.

The author of this article was interviewed by Home Beautiful for their article "Buyer's Guide to Pillows"
Article by Jodie Thomson (Home Beautiful - May 25th, 2011)


  1. Gordon SJ, Grimmer-Somers K; Your Pillow May Not Guarantee a Good Night's Sleep or Symptom-Free Waking. Physiotherapy Can. Vol. 63, No. 2, pg. 183-90. 2011.

  2. Gordon S; Sleep on it, pillow research;In Touch (Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy Australia); Iss. 3, pg. 16-18, 2012

How to Choose the right pillow
Where to buy the right pillow
Which type of pillow
Fibre Filled
Feather and Down
Foam Pillow
Memory Foam
Contour Pillows
Caring for your pilow
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