Memory Foam Pillows: What You Need to Know

Some people will spend up to a third of their lives asleep. One of the biggest things that can make or break a good night’s sleep is your pillow.

Memory foam pillows are popular and may appeal to you if you’re looking for an alternative to traditional pillows. But can they give your head and neck more support, and do they help you sleep better?

What Is Memory Foam?

Memory foam is made from polyurethane. This is a type of plastic you’ll find in a variety of products, such as sofas, mattresses, insulation, and spray foam. It gets its name from the fact that it can change shape under pressure, but return to its original shape when the pressure is gone. This lets it adjust to your individual shape and gives you extra head and neck support.

Benefits of a Memory Foam Pillow

The support that a memory foam pillow gives you helps you sleep in the best position for your spine: one that supports the natural curve of your cervical spine. This is made up of the first seven bones that make up your neck.

To help you do this, memory foam pillows come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the traditional puffy rectangles to a curved orthopedic model designed for back and side sleepers.

As you sleep on your back, gravity keeps your body centered over your spine and keeps the banana-shaped curve of your neck intact. If you’re a back sleeper, experts say that you should use a small, rounded neck roll to support your neck and a flatter pillow to support the rest of your head. You can do this by combining a few different types of pillows, or by using a contoured memory foam one.

For side sleepers, the pillow should be higher under your neck than it is under your head. If you sleep on your side, you want to keep your chin straight ahead in a neutral position.

But some people tuck their chin into a fetal position. This forces your head forward and may cause pain. Studies have shown that a contoured memory foam pillow can help support your chin in the correct posture.

If you often sleep on planes or in cars, a horseshoe-shaped memory foam pillow can support your neck so it doesn’t drop uncomfortably far to one side. Just make sure it’s not too high in the back, or it’ll push your head forward as you doze.

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Who Shouldn’t Use Memory Foam Pillows

People who get hot when they sleep: Some memory foam pillows can trap heat or get warmer as you lie on them. Some people say they make them sweaty. If you’re a hot sleeper, be mindful of this.

People who are sensitive to off-gassing: Some memory foam products have chemicals in them called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. These chemicals can give off a bad smell when the pillow is new. This is called off-gassing. Some people may be extra-sensitive to the odor. It may cause a hard time breathing, headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation, or asthma. The smell should fade after a few days or a week in a well-ventilated area. Also, you can look for brands labeled “low VOCs.”

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo on April 23, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine: "Improving the Quality of Sleep With an Optimal Pillow: a Randomized, Comparative Study."

National Sleep Foundation: "What is Memory Foam?" "Choosing a Mattress: Everything You Need to Know," "Best Online Mattress."

The Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Development and Comparative Evaluation of New Shapes of Pillows."

Cedars-Sinai: "Cervical Spine."

Cleveland Clinic: "Back, Side or Stomach: Which Sleep Position Is Best for You?"

Harvard Medical School: "Say 'Good Night' To Neck Pain."

NBC News: "Sleep on This: Consumer Reports Rates the Best Pillows for Better Sleep."

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