Few individuals in the western world sleep without a pillow. Your pillow provides more than additional comfort, it ensures proper alignment of the spine, neck, and shoulders and gives much-needed support to the surprisingly heavy head. However, it might surprise you to find out how many types of pillows are available today, as the market has grown considerably in recent years.
Let’s start from the top.
Evolution of the Pillow
Believe it or not, the pillow that we all know and love today is far from its rudimentary and, frankly ultra uncomfortable beginnings.
The first pillow was literally a rock. For obvious reasons, pillow materials were gradually upgraded but remained decidedly uncomfortable.
In the ancient world, soft pillows were believed by many cultures to sap vitality and intelligence from the sacred head.
However, the proverbial Flintstones soon upgraded their source of cranial comfort to carved marble, wood, bamboo, and ivory.
Pillows could not be classified as comfortable until the era of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
The Greeks gave us democracy, but more importantly, thanks to them we have no longer have to sleep with our head on a rock.
The pillow has evolved significantly since the era of the ancient Greeks and Romans and is now available in a plethora of different types, styles, and functions.
What Material is Used in Pillows?
Since it is no longer socially acceptable to sleep with your head on a rock, a number of different materials have emerged as adequate pillow stuffing.
Feather & Down
Yep, actual feathers from a bird. Feather and down pillows are, hopefully, sustainably pulled from a bird, usually a goose, and sewn into the pillow.
Feather and down pillows are typically very comfortable, even considering the occasional poke from the pointy end of the feather.
Typically, the feathers and down used in high-quality pillows are small, curled and exceptionally soft.
All Down Pillows
“Down” refers to the good parts of the feather. (Every part, but the quill)
Down is typically sourced from the bird’s undercoat which is fluffier and much softer than the outer feathers.
Visco Elastic Polyurethane Foam, typically referred to as memory foam, was originally developed by the NASA for use above the space shuttle, and to improve the safety of aircraft.
Since then the responsive foam has been utilized in a plethora of consumer products including mattresses and pillows.
A memory foam pillow consists of one or multiple layers of memory foam and is designed to cradle the head and relieve strain on the neck.
Have you ever heard of unexpanded polystyrene, also known as EPS? No? That’s because “microbeads” is a way better name, and much easier to remember.
Microbeads are cool because they are super small, but very hard. These unique characteristics allow microbead pillows to provide firm support, yet perfectly conform to the shape the head and neck.
Buckwheat is an all-natural, plant-based pillow stuffing that provides a similar effect to microbeads.
Water pillows are essentially thick water balloons upholstered in a comfortable material. In many respects, water is the perfect pillow stuffing.
In the right proportions, water is supportive, contouring and perfectly conforms to every shape.
An air pillow is nearly identical to a water pillow, but instead of water, it contains air. Once inflated by the user, air pillows conform to the shape of the head and neck.
Air pillows are exceptionally light and compact; thus they make great travel and camping pillows.
Polyester and synthetic pillows are considered the standard pillow. In general, polyester provides adequate stuffing and is the more affordable option.
Latex pillows typically consist of Dunlop, or Talalay latex, which provides a firmer, more responsive pillow.
How Are Pillows Manufactured?
How a pillow is manufactured is dependent on its type and the brand that is manufacturing it. However, every pillow shares specific characteristics and features.
At its core, a pillow is simply a sack. The pillow covering contains the stuffing and forms the primary structure of the pillow
The stitch of the pillow is what determines how and where the stuffing is distributed. Standard pillows are stitched around their four sides to create the standard pillow.
Orthopedic, neck, and travel pillows are stitched in a pattern that holds the stuffing in a specific manner, designed to support individual areas of the body.
The stuffing is the most critical part of the pillow, without which it could not adequately support the head and neck.
Stuffings come in a variety of different shapes and sizes and are generally determinative of the pillows type.
The pillowcase makes nightly contact with the head and face and is arguably as important as the pillows stuffing.
The pillowcase should be of high-quality, and preferably all-natural and hypoallergenic.
Why Does Pillow Construction Matter?
A pillow is only as good as the quality of its design and the materials used in its construction.
The best pillows combine the best of features of temperature regulation, conforming support, pain relief and provide significant benefits to different sleep disorders.
It is not uncommon for individuals to feel uncomfortably warm throughout the night, because most mattresses and pillows are conducive to trapping body heat, rather than dissipating it.
Just like your mattress, your pillow should include measures to fight overheating.
Many temperature regulating pillows include layers or infusions of cooling phase-change gel which draws and dissipates heat away from the body.
At its core, a pillow is intended to relieve the weight of the head from the neck.
Specific to Sleep Disorder
A pillow does not have to be specially designed to provide relief to specific sleep disorder symptoms; however, it should be able to provide at least minimal relief from the basic sleep disorders like snoring, nocturnal neck & back pain, and mild forms of sleep apnea.
Pillows come in a variety of different shapes, styles, types, and sizes.
However, it is the intent of a pillows design and the quality of the materials used in its construction that are the most important features to consider.
Feather & Down
Feather and down pillows consist of varying degrees of each and are one of the most common pillow types.
Feather pillows typically consist of European and Canadian goose feathers, stuffed into a soft cotton case.
Down pillows are exceptionally soft and comfortable. However, concerning directed support and pressure relief feather and down pillows are severely lacking.
The soft feathers are rarely enough to provide adequate support of the neck and head; therefore, many feather and down pillows are used in decoration rather than nightly use.
Stomach Sleepers – Due to their soft characteristics, feather and down pillows are recommended to stomach sleepers who benefit the most from a thin pillow or no pillow at all.
Back Sleepers – Feather and down pillows are typically very soft which enables a natural alignment of the neck and spine, which is beneficial to back sleepers.
Memory foam pillows primarily consist of viscoelastic polyurethane foam that conforms to the shape of the weight exerted upon it.
Thus, memory foam pillows provide excellent support for the head and relieve strain from the neck.
Memory foam pillows are typically manufactured in three different types, standard, shredded and layered.
Standard – Standard memory foam pillows are designed like a traditional pillow but feature a solid brick of memory foam stuffing.
Shredded – Shredded memory foam pillows include memory foam stuffing that has been shredded into small pieces of foam that conform to the shape of the head better than a solid brick of foam.
Layered – Layered memory foam pillows feature several layers of memory foam of varying densities to cradle the head and provide support to specific areas of the neck and head.
Back Sleepers – A memory foam pillow is beneficial to back sleepers because it effectively conforms to the shape of the head, relieves strain from the neck and provides proper spinal alignment.
Side Sleepers – Side sleepers will benefit the most from a thick memory pillow that effectively closes the gap created between the head and the mattress when side sleeping.
Combination Sleepers – Combination sleepers would also benefit from a memory foam pillow, as they are often configured to suit a variety of different sleep types.
Similar to latex mattresses, latex pillows consist of naturally sourced Dunlop or Talalay latex.
Latex is naturally porous and firm, and the smart choice for sleepers who tend to overheat.
Latex pillows are made from a long-lasting natural material, they sleep cooler than memory foam pillows and retain their shape longer.
Additionally, latex pillows are exceptionally durable and maintain a reputation for longevity.
In general, latex pillows are soft, yet very supportive. Thus they provide an above average level of comfort and pain relief.
The firm, conforming support of a latex pillow is beneficial to the head and neck, as it relieves strain from the neck and supports healthy spinal alignment.
Back Sleepers – Latex pillows are recommended to back sleepers because the pillow cradles the head and supports the neck to enable healthy spinal alignment.
Stomach Sleepers – Latex pillows are often thin, and dense; thus, they are often recommended to stomach sleepers who benefit the most from a thin pillow.
Combination Sleepers – Latex pillows are well suited to perform for a variety of different sleep types, including combination sleepers.
Heavy Sleepers – Latex pillows sleep much cooler than other pillows, and are a great choice for heavy sleepers who may tend to overheat.
A wedge pillow features a tapered, angled sleep surface that enables sleepers to sleep on an incline and elevate the head during sleep.
Gravity works against the body when sleeping, which can assert pressure on the esophagus, airway, and the spine.
Wedge pillows are often used in conjunction with other standard pillows but, unlike normal pillows, wedge pillows are intended to provide relief from specific sleep disorders.
Snoring – Wedge pillows elevate the upper body, thus aligning the esophagus, opening the airway and relieving snoring symptoms.
Acid Reflux (Heartburn) – Sleeping inclined also relieves symptoms of heartburn
Sleep Apnea – Wedge pillows are recommended for those who suffer from sleep apnea as they enable the airway to remain open and clear.
Back Sleepers – Wedge pillows are also beneficial to back sleepers as the firm incline supports healthy spinal alignment.
Body pillows are long, oversized pillows designed to provide the body with exceptional comfort, relief, and a restful night’s sleep.
They provide support for the spine, neck, hips, and knees and the upper and lower extremities. Body pillows are available in a variety of sizes, materials, and functions.
Additionally, body pillows are often the length of a mattress and engineered to mold to the body and provide support for the back, hips and eliminate pain and uneven pressure points.
Body pillows also assist in providing healthy spinal alignment and can be positioned to support the lumbar, knees and the neck.
They are especially beneficial to new mothers during pregnancy and when nursing. Sleepers who choose a body pillow can also reduce stress and eliminate tossing and turning.
Side Sleepers – Side sleepers often complain of pain in the hips and knees.
A body pillow can be used to provide additional support to the hip and knee areas by slipping it between the legs during sleep.
Back Sleepers – Body pillows are beneficial to back sleepers who can use them to support the lumbar, shoulders, arms and lower back.
A neck pillow is a pillow designed to support the neck and head and properly align the cervical spine.
Neck pillows are manufactured in a variety of sizes, shapes, and designs, and are stuffed with foam, fiberfill, and microbeads and some are even inflatable.
However, regardless of the stuffing all neck pillows are designed for side and back sleeping and used to support the head and prevent it from tilting too far in one direction.
Neck pillows provide terrific support for the neck and relief from neck, back, and shoulder pain.
Back Sleepers – Neck pillows provide extras support for the neck and align the cervical spine; thus neck pillows are recommended for back sleepers.
Sleep apnea pillows are designed to be used with and without a CPAP machine and are designed to position the neck, so the airway remains open.
Pillows designed to treat sleep apnea include features designed to reduce the pressure of the CPAP mask and keep it from moving out of place.
Apnea pillows support positional therapy and are designed to reduce the number of sleep apnea episodes per night by tilting the head backward and opening the airways; thus allowing the sleeper to breathe uninterrupted.
Sleep apnea pillows are available in three types:
Side Sleeping Pillows – Side sleeping pillows are designed to elevate the head and feel comfortable to sleepers who keep their arm under their head when they sleep.
Wedge pillows – Some wedge pillows are designed specifically for sleep apnea. WEdge pillows are placed under the back and elevate the head to increase airflow.
Cervical pillows – Cervical pillows are designed to provide neck support for side sleepers and relieve strain from the neck.
A lumbar pillow is a specially designed orthopedic pillow designed with firm foam and fiber that provides relief from low back pain and even elevate sprains, pressure, herniated or ruptured discs, sciatica, and injury.
Lumbar pillows ease back pain and support the spine, allowing it to remain in a neutral position when lying on the back.
Pillows designed to support the lumbar spine come in several forms, including memory foam. Lumbar pillows are designed to rest along the inner curve of the spine and offer cradling support for the lower back.
Back Sleepers – Back sleepers will benefit the most from a lumbar pillow as they provide extra support for the spine and support a neutral spinal alignment.
Unlike the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, modern man needs a softer pillow. There are hundreds of pillow types to choose from, with thousands more options and available features.
The best pillow for you depends on the way you sleep and your specific sleep needs. Need a softer pillow? Then memory foam may be the best option. Do you suffer from heartburn? Then a wedge pillow is the best choice for you.
However, regardless of your specific needs every pillow you consider should be made from high-quality materials and designed to provide you with the most relief, support and comfort.