Question: “What is the best type of pillow or mattress?”
This is a question that comes up a lot in my practice. In my opinion, there isn’t one best brand or style. You have to find the one that suits you best and that can be a challenge. There are certainly a huge variety of options out there on the market and picking out just the right one can be quite overwhelming, not to mention expensive.
Here’s my one tip for ensuring you are sleeping on the best pillow or mattress for your body – it needs to support your spine in a neutral position whether you sleep on your back or your side.
Note: Sleeping on your stomach is less than ideal because no matter how you do it, there’s no possible way to maintain a neutral spine and it places a huge amount of strain on your muscles and joints. I know how hard it is to change sleeping habits, but I promise it will be worth it if you can.
Okay. So what does ‘neutral spine’ actually mean? It means that all three natural curves in your spine (cervical, thoracic and lumbar) are maintained and aligned. If you are standing with a neutral posture, your shoulders and hips are level, your head is straight and from the side, your ears will be in line with your shoulders and hips. If you are lying in bed, this position should be maintained and your mattress and/or pillow should be able to support this position comfortably. Have someone check you in your sleeping position to see how your current set up lines up.
If you sleep on your side, you need a pillow that fills the space between your shoulder and your head. If that pillow is too full or firm, it will bend your head away from your mattress and out of neutral position. Likewise, if your pillow is too flat, your head will tip down towards the mattress. In either case, this places too much strain on the muscles and joints in your neck and will inevitably cause discomfort and/or injury.
If you sleep on your back, the same is true. Your pillow and mattress need to fill the gaps between the mattress and your neck and lower back areas as well as allow for the curve in your thoracic spine. Too soft and you will sink in to the mattress; too firm and your body will have too many pressure points and in either case there won’t be enough support for your spine and you be forced out of neutral position.
Considering the amount of time you sleep, or aspire to sleep, each night, it is important to set yourself up in the most comfortable and optimal position. Using a pillow and mattress that allow you to sleep in a position that maintains your spine in a neutral posture is essential.
Pillows and mattresses do not need to be fancy or expensive and often you can make use of what you have already at home. You can beef up a flat pillow easily by folding it in half inside it’s pillow case, or by folding a bath towel and sticking it under your pillow in the case.
It’s a little trickier to modify a mattress, so it pays to take your time when shopping for one. Mattresses don’t last forever and if you find you’re either having a hard time getting comfortable falling asleep or waking up stiff and sore in the morning, it might be time to consider purchasing a new one. Have someone go with you so they can observe you in your sleeping position to make sure you are aligned and remember the Goldilocks Principle: not too soft, not too hard – but something that’s just right for you.