You invest lots of time into picking just the right bed for optimum comfort and rest, so it makes sense to put just as much effort into making sure you have the best pillow for your needs.

If you suffer from neck or back pain when you wake in the morning, or if your pillow is older than you can remember, it may be time for a new one. The tricky part is finding the one that works best for you.

Is it time for a new pillow? The answer to this depends on whether you have a special cervical pillow, designed for neck and spine alignment and support, or a regular down pillow.

A regular down pillow can last for years, while a cervical pillow has a lifespan of 18 to 24 months, according to Daniel Claps, DC, a chiropractor in Basking Ridge, NJ. Dr. Claps suggests simply feeling the pillow. "If it feels soft in the center, it's broken down." Another way to tell if your pillow is past its prime, according to the American Chiropractic Association, is if you find yourself sleeping on your side with one hand propped under your pillow. Some experts feel that regular feather pillows, like cervical pillows, should be replaced every year or two.

How do I know what kind of pillow to buy? There is no one-size-fits-all pillow. The American Chiropractic Association says your head and neck should be aligned with your spine and upper back when you lie on the pillow, both on your side and on your back. In other words, the pillow should not be so high that it causes your head and neck to be forced upward or sideways.

Is my new pillow working? If you're waking up with neck and/or back pain, that's an indication your new pillow isn't giving you the support you need.

Claps recommends that consumers undergo muscle testing in order to be sure. Muscle testing involves testing different parts of the body while a person is lying on a pillow in order to determine whether there is significant muscle weakness caused by an unsupportive or improperly-sized pillow. A pillow that's the right fit should enable a strong muscle response.

What should I do when I travel? Just because you're leaving home doesn't mean you have to leave your pillow. Many travelers make room in their suitcases for their personal pillows, or else they seek out hotel chains that offer "pillow menus" so they can choose their own pillows.

When taking a long plane, train, or car ride, it's a good idea to get a horseshoe-shaped travel pillow to provide your neck with support in case you doze off. Find a pillow that can cradle your head if it drops to one side but isn't so thick that it forces your head forward.

Daniel Claps, DC, reviewed this article.




Interview with Dr. Dan Claps, Claps Chiropractic and Wellness Center, Basking Ridge, NJ; Harvard Health Publications. "Say 'Good Night' to Neck Pain."

American Chiropractic Association. "Stop Dreaming About Quality Sleep and Do Something!"