If there’s one thing we all value, it’s a good night’s rest. Getting enough sleep is vital for our cognitive functioning, maintaining mental health and a ensuring a healthy immune system. But have you ever woken up to severe neck or back pain after a long sleep? If so, your pillow might be the problem.
Pillows are considered just as necessary a part of your modern bedroom as your bedding, equally as important as a sheet or duvet. They’re also strongly associated with a more comfortable and blissful night’s sleep – after all, the most luxurious hotels all have the plumpest pillows. However, sleeping with a pillow isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be.
Supporting your head in the wrong position while you sleep can have dangerous consequences on your body. In the short term, it could lead to uncomfortable muscle aches through the day. Long term, it could lead to serious complications with your posture and bone health.
There’s probably been a time in your life when you had to sleep without a pillow, and you probably didn’t find it very comfortable. The thought of waving goodbye to your down feather pillows might sound like a waking nightmare. If you’re finding it hard to grasp the notion that sleeping without a pillow could be better for your health, these experts are on hand to explain why you might just benefit from laying your head on a cold, firm mattress.
Lilith is an expert at following news and trends across the world of interior design. She’s committed to helping readers make the best choices for joyful living by writing practical tips and guides to help inform their design choices. In this piece, expert sleep coaches and chiropractors helped her to investigate the benefits of sleeping without a pillow
Should you sleep with or without a pillow?
If you’re wondering whether you should sleep without a pillow tonight, the shorter answer is, it depends. Ditching the pillow is really only an option for certain types of sleepers.
‘Sleeping without a pillow is best for those who sleep on their backs or stomachs,’ explains Joshua Burnham owner and chiropractor at Precision Chiropractic Services (opens in new tab). ‘Side sleepers should sleep with a pillow in order to keep their neck in alignment with their pelvis to avoid creating tension and pressure points along their back as they sleep.’
If you sleep on your back however, then ditching the pillow might be a good idea. As Joshua notes, ‘sleeping without a pillow while on your back is ideal for maintaining proper neck alignment during sleep’.
According to Dr. Demetris Elia, a chiropractor with PEAKiroprcatic (opens in new tab), the neck doesn’t need much support when laying on your back, so a pillow shouldn’t be necessary. If this position feels too uncomfortable however, he suggests rolling up a small towel or blanket and placing it behind your neck. ‘You could use a very thin pillow or a specially designed neck pillow, such as a travel pillow, if preferred,’ he adds.
For the side sleepers among us, there are a few errors to avoid, too. Although it might seem to add extra comfort, multiple pillows really isn’t necessary according to Dr Demetris. ‘You want the spine’s curvature to be supported and not compromised by your sleeping position,’ he says. ‘This means you only need a pillow that fits between your neck and the mattress – roughly the width of your shoulder. It should prevent the head from being tilted in any direction.’
Lying on your front ought to be avoided if possible, as this position forces the neck to be turned and also makes respiration harder.
Can sleeping without a pillow improve posture?
With many of us spending long hours sat idle at our desks, posture is something many of us are growing more conscious of. If you’re worried about hunched shoulders and a curved spine, you might want to revaluate the pillows when it comes to how to style your bed.
‘If you lie on your back, sleeping without a pillow is certainly better for your spine, especially the neck,’ says Beth Hawkes, owner of Nursecode (opens in new tab). ‘The main reason is that as we sit and work at the desk for long hours, we bring our heads and neck forward meaning the back muscles of the neck are stretched, often the main cause of pain.’
According to Beth, lying flat on your back without a pillow brings your head and neck back to their normal position. Sleeping with a pillow will simply maintain the incorrect positioning we have our heads in when sat at a desk. ‘It also relaxes the stretched muscles and tissues at the back of the neck,’ she explains.
Sleeping without a pillow might be better for avoiding hunched shoulders, too. ‘When your neck and back muscles are properly relaxed and at the proper tension, the curvature of the spine won’t be compromised,’ Dr Demetris says.
It’s important to be conscious of using pillows while you’re awake, too. We’re all guilty of using plenty of cushions and pillows to prop up our heads up while laying in bed and watching TV or reading, but Dr Demetris emphasises that this causes similar issues. ‘This posture forces the upper back into a flexed position which over time will give people rounded shoulders, headaches, arthritic changes in the neck, rotator cuff problems, and overall poor posture.’
Can sleeping without a pillow alleviate neck pain?
With all the potential benefits of sleeping without a pillow, it’s not surprising to learn that it can help to alleviate pain, especially in the neck.
‘Sleeping without a pillow could definitely be the answer to your neck pain,’ Dr Demetris says. ‘This happens a lot with side sleepers who either have too big of a pillow or too little, causing their neck to tilt and create neck pain.’
Joshua also points out how neck pain is usually localized at the base of the neck and the upper cervical spine, areas which are subjected to unique force and stress through the day. ‘Sleeping without a pillow will allow the skull to be more in line with the shoulders which will help to alleviate stress on these two areas of the neck and could alleviate pain in some cases,’ he says.