Woman sleeping on a pillow.

Why Do Humans Need Pillows to Sleep?

You are probably used to sleeping with a pillow under your head. But does everyone else do the same? Is there a reason not to sleep with pillows? Get your answers below from the top-rated explanations on the internet.

1.

You may need a thicker or thinner pillow to maintain a neutral anatomic position while sleeping on your back. This is based on the thickness of the muscle and fat on your back and shoulders, as well as the angle of your cervical spine. This neutral and anatomic position can help with breathing while sleeping.

2.

Man sleeping with a pillow

I am a physical therapist in a spinal cord injury unit. Pillows have the same purpose as pressure relief with our spinal cord injury patients. In the back of the head, there is a boney prominence called the occiput. If you lay on something hard, the blood in the skin between the occiput and the hard ground surface occludes and the skin in that area slowly dies if you lay there for long periods without allowing blood flow to be restored. The entire weight of the head is concentrated on that one small area and so it needs to be supported to prevent occluding blood. This same event occurs with the hip bones in spinal cord patients as they cannot move their legs to relieve the pressure (thus they use their wheel chairs to recline and adjust gravity pressures through their legs or they lift themselves off the chair to restore blood flow – every 15 minutes). You will get pressure sores which are the skin between the bone and the surface necrosing. Basically pillows serve to support the head to allow blood flow to that skin throughout the night and also support the neck musculature while we sleep.

3.

Pillow on a bed.

I currently work at a Colorado based Mattress Store. While you don’t need a mattress or a pillow, it does wonders for hip, neck, back, and shoulder pains.

A properly fitted mattress provides about 2/3rds of your support. The mattress in conjunction with the pillow provides the remaining 1/3rd. I feel that this support is necessary IF you want the best nights rest possible. You can still sleep without it but not optimally. The way it was explained in my training is as follows.

A mattress that is actually fitted to your sleeping habits and body, reduces how much your muscles have to work throughout the night to maintain the natural S curve of your spine. If your muscles work hard throughout the night maintaining this position you tend to wake up with a tense back and/or back pain. The part the pillow plays is also quite important. An improperly fitted pillow typically causes neck pain due to similar reasons. The neck muscles work and are stretched throughout the night from the lack of support.

Please note that this is a very general statement and that every person is different as well as the mattress they sleep on. Many people will say that they sleep absolutely amazing on their current mattress that is 40 years old (no exaggeration, true story). However, I used to think that Motorola Razr was the best phone ever. Then I tried something new, the Samsung Note. To be clear, my point is that just because you feel something is the best you’ve ever experienced doesn’t mean you can’t experience something better.

Bonus (A few general mattress rules) :
If you are a side sleeper try to avoid firm mattresses. They place a lot of pressure on your shoulders and hips with very little give. This leads to more tossing and turning throughout the night (even if you aren’t completely awake/aware).

Adjustable bases, sometimes called hospital beds, are used in hospitals for a reason. They reduce pressure on your body by forming a S curve to help match your spine’s curve. Also, they raise your feet above your heart causing increased blood flow to facilitate healing. Why do you think doctors tell you to keep certain injuries elevated?

In regards to pillows, most stomach sleepers need a thin pillow. Side sleepers often need the thickest. The reason for that relates to your shoulders. The pillow needs to be about as thick as the distance from your neck to the edge of your shoulder so that the neck is in line with spine. Back sleepers are often needing something in the middle. Although almost every customer claims to need the fluffiest fluffernugget of a pillow we have. Very few of them will listen otherwise. So we sell it to them. The customer is always right. No matter how ridiculously wrong they are.

What worked for me, and might work for you is this. I purchased a thin pillow that I was comfortable with on my stomach. Now, most side sleepers end up having an arm underneath the pillow essentially “increasing” the thickness of the pillow to match a so called side sleeper pillow. This worked for me. My arm made up for the missing padding. Again, this is what is good for me.

4.

I am a physical therapist in a spinal cord injury unit. Pillows have the same purpose as pressure relief with our spinal cord injury patients. In the back of the head, there is a boney prominence called the occiput. If you lay on something hard, the blood in the skin between the occiput and the hard ground surface occludes and the skin in that area slowly dies if you lay there for long periods without allowing blood flow to be restored. The entire weight of the head is concentrated on that one small area and so it needs to be supported to prevent occluding blood. This same event occurs with the hip bones in spinal cord patients as they cannot move their legs to relieve the pressure (thus they use their wheel chairs to recline and adjust gravity pressures through their legs or they lift themselves off the chair to restore blood flow – every 15 minutes). You will get pressure sores which are the skin between the bone and the surface necrosing. Basically pillows serve to support the head to allow blood flow to that skin throughout the night and also support the neck musculature while we sleep.

5.

Sleeping without a pillow.

I can only speak from personal experience, and that of many people I know but sleeping on a tatami mat with a futon forces you to sleep on your front or back. If you’re not used to this, first few nights are going to suck, however, after a short adjustment period, I noticed it’s some of the best sleep I’ve had in my life. In temples we were given really fat pillows filled with a grain of some sort, the aim was to create a dip for your head at a comfortable angle, and it would restrict movement beyond that. This was effectively a hard surface, once that dip was created with your hands, the grain wouldn’t budge with your head.

I have massive neck pain sometimes, and it disappeared entirely, while I was in Japan. At one point it was suggested that I sleep without the pillow, to correct the spine position. It works, again, takes a bit of getting used to but it works. I’m hoping there is some research into this somewhere, and I’m gonna have a search, but Japan is no exception with sleeping on the floor or a hard surface. Much of the planet does it and survives just fine.

6.

Woman sleeping without a pillow.

We do not need pillows, we simply desire them.

If we look to the animal kingdom and our nearest relatives we can see that yes we share traits of nest building with chimpanzees and great apes, however you would do well to notice that they all use hard woods.
Further reading shows that native peoples such as African tribal peoples from the 50’s do not sleep on soft pillows.

When you lie down on a hard, flat floor you will immediately feel all your tension (try it). Once you sense your tightness, you can do something about it and let go the areas that are holding stress and rigidity and release the stiffness. When you get down on the floor, something has to give, and it’s not going to be the floor; that’s for sure! Think of the floor as your personal biofeedback device. Use your breathing to release tension and encourage relaxation.

Your body has not had the time to evolve to require pillows, and your muscles relax themselves pretty well when asleep.
Infact it is poor pillow and mattress choice that causes most of us to suffer as we find ourselves comfortable in what are unhealthy positions to lie in, if you cushion the discomfort, you can stay in a position that your body is warning you is not safe.

7.

Girl laying on the floor without a pillow.

Learned in my teens that whenever my back would feel super tired or strained, I could lay flat on the hard floor and relax for a few minutes and it does wonders! Still do it today a couple times a month. I’ll usually pull my knees to my chest for a short bit and often will crack my back that way, too. It feels so much better afterwards. It’s like a free, mini back therapy session I can do just about anywhere.

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