Pillows can help or hurt, depending on their firmness and your sleep position.
You probably know someone who won't leave home without a special pillow, claiming that a particular bag of fluff or feathers is the key to a good night's sleep. And that person may be on to something. "Anything that will make you more comfortable will improve the likelihood of getting a good night's sleep," says Dr. Lawrence Epstein, a sleep expert at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
But the benefits of pillows don't go much further than comfort and positioning. Sometimes pillows even hurt your health.
Pillows and pain
"If your neck is bent in any way for an extended period of time, you'll get uncomfortable," explains Matthew O'Rourke, a physical therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. He says a pillow that's too soft or too firm often leads to neck pain.
Losing sleep from being uncomfortable at night has consequences. Your body has less time for muscle growth, tissue repair, and other important functions that occur during sleep.
Sleep deprivation can affect mood, thinking skills, and appetite. Chronic sleep deprivation increases your risk for falls, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
On the plus side
Special pillows can help stave off some problems, such as heartburn symptoms. "Among lifestyle changes, elevating the head to 30 degrees can be effective. I've had success with patients using a wedge pillow," says Dr. James Mojica, the sleep lab director at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
Sleeping with your upper body elevated at an angle can also reduce symptoms of sinus problems and may prevent relapses of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo — a condition in which tiny crystals in the inner ear become dislodged and cause extreme dizziness.
Specially designed pillows can help people keep their CPAP masks on. "They have cutouts that the mask fits into so it won't get knocked off," Dr. Epstein explains.