frank gunn/canadian press


We think of our beds as havens, but if it has the wrong kind of pillow, we may be sabotaging our bids for restful slumber.


Most of us think of our beds as havens, cosy retreats into which we sink nightly as we try to keep up with — or catch up with — our need for sleep. But if that bed is home to the wrong kind of pillow, we may actually be sabotaging our own bids for restful slumber, waking with a stiff or aching neck or stuffy nose.

Pillows aren’t a one-size-fits-all item, say health professionals who deal with the repercussions of bad pillow purchases. They suggest we put a little effort into selecting what supports our heads.

“A lot of people come in and say they have neck pain because they slept funny,” says Stephanie Gage, a registered massage therapist who practises in Toronto. “And a lot of times it is their pillow.

Physiotherapist Shaun Lapenskie sees it too.

“Personally I do treat a lot of chronic neck pain. And that’s certainly an issue when we’re talking about that, especially when people are having pain at night time,” says Lapenskie, whose practice is in Barrie, Ont.

“If you’re having head­aches and neck pains and stiffness when you wake up, you might think about the pillow you’re using and look and see if it fits you or not.”

The ideal pillow should suit the way you sleep and your size. And if you or others in your household have allergies to dust mites or feathers, the filling of the pillow is also critical.

Stomach sleepers: The pillows on your bed should probably be for show only.

“It’s a double no-no to sleep on your stomach with a pillow,” says Gage, explaining it puts the neck in a strained position.

“You’ve got a series of joints in your neck, and turning your head to one side or the other when you’re sleeping, if you’re on your stomach, is the equivalent of taking your index finger and bending it backwards for five hours,” Lapenskie says.

If you are a stomach sleeper and you can’t do without a pillow, the thinner the better.

Side sleepers: The aim here is to have your head in a straight line with your spine. The real job of a pillow for a side sleeper is to fill in the indentation between the top of the shoulder and the ear and to support the head so it’s in that straight line.

It requires a pillow with some form, but it’s got to be the right form. Lapenskie recommends one with a high-quality synthetic fill.

Another option is a pillow that contains a water bladder either between or below some synthetic fill. The beauty of these babies, says Lapenskie, is that you can adjust the firmness and height by adding or draining some of the water.

People with back problems who are side sleepers might want to think about placing another pillow between their knees, Lapenskie said, to keep the upper leg from falling forward and down. That puts a painful twist on the spine that can be prevented.

Back sleepers: People who sleep on their backs need more of a pillow than stomach sleepers, but less of a pillow than side sleepers. The job here is to cup the nape of the neck. And to keep the head aligned with the spine, a little bit of cushioning is needed. But avoid puffy pillows that lever the head at an angle to the spine.

Allergic sleepers: The content of your pillow is important if you have an allergy, but not perhaps for the reason you think. While some people believe they have allergies to feathers, the reality is that most diagnosed feather allergies are actually allergies to dust mites, says Dr. Milton Gold, an allergist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

People with dust mite allergies should use special covers to encase their beds and pillows; the tight weave will cut down on the outward flow of dust mite feces.