Is using a body pillow even necessary for improved sleep quality and pain management? Can it reduce low back pain?
More than 80% of Americans will experience the debilitating effects and consequences of low back pain at some point in their lives, including lost time at work. In fact, back pain alone costs the economy over $100 billion a year. [SOURCE]
Throw in neck, hip, and shoulder pain and it’s amazing that America is the world’s largest economy; it’s miraculous anybody shows up to work at all.
And these days, with less people working on their feet and more people staring at screens for work all day, it seems that rates of back and other body pain episodes will continue to rise.
Furthermore, if sitting is supposedly the new smoking, perhaps the smoking gun of our sedentary lifestyle is back pain caused by the stress placed on the musculoskeletal system with prolonged sitting.
The obvious solution for relieving a stiff back, hips, etc., is walking and standing more. You can also try some essential oils and supplements for joint pain. Another easy and reasonably cost-effective solution is sleeping with a body pillow at night.
If you sleep on your back, you might not even need to buy a high-end, expensive product. Just grab an extra pillow from the closet (it shouldn’t be too thick) and place it under your knees while sleeping.
And if you’re a side sleeper, a thicker pillow between the knees might be all it takes to correct spine curvature and relieve most of your back pain.
If you have debilitating back pain or a diagnosed condition, say, for example, spinal stenosis, consult with a chiropractor, physical therapist or other health professional.
With that caveat out of the way, let’s take a look if using a body pillow is supported by research.
Risk factors of low back pain
This research study says for people who sit throughout the majority of the work day, there are several factors that may lead to lower back pain. This includes prolonged muscle contractions. As well as sustained body postures that stress the muscles.
“Postures outside of neutral are particularly troublesome,” say the researchers. That’s because they lead to prolonged low level muscle contractions and changes in the pressure in the disk between the vertebrae.
As a result, the lumbar spine flattens. Accompanied with this flattening of the lower spine is increased disc pressure. Furthermore, there’s the increase in passive strain on the posterior components of the spine.
To reduce pressure on the lumbar spine (the lower back, where the spine curves inward toward the abdomen), you need to maintain the natural slightly inward (lordotic) curvature of the lumbar spine.
Many people work in an office (or home office) for eight or more hours a day. Your boss probably wouldn’t approve of you bringing a bed into your office and using a sleeping pillow. So before you even think about what’s the best body pillow for back pain, first consider what you’ll do to manage or prevent body pain Monday through Friday all day.
The researchers of the study above suggest using a lumbar support pillow for your office chair. The best lumbar support pillow for back pain, suggest the researchers, includes a cut-out. This cut-out supports the posterior tissues of the pelvic region. The findings of the study show that flattening of the lumbar spine is reduced with a lumbar support pillow at the workplace.
Body Pillow for Back Pain: Does it Work?
Hopefully after a long day at work, there’s time to hit the gym for yoga, weight lifting, cardio. Or a walk. Or pretty much anything that may mitigate the effects of sitting all day. Then, it’s time for more sitting at dinner, followed by, if you’re like most people, more sitting watching TV.
Then, it’s time for hopefully at least seven or more hours of restful sleep. But if restful sleep seems elusive because of back pain, buy one of these longer pillows as soon as you can. There are studies, such as this one from 2015, that provide strong evidence they work.
The study investigated the effect of a body pillow on pain, lumbar range of motion and functional ability of patients with chronic, low back pain.
Fifty-two subjects in between the ages of 20–69 years old, with low back pain of at least three months 3 months were randomly assigned to treatment (sleeping with a long pillow along the body) and the control group. The control group only received physical therapy. Whereas the experiment group received physical therapy and used a body pillow.
After a two-week treatment and 12-week follow up, all outcomes improved in both groups. However, the group getting therapy and using the pillow experienced better results.
The researchers conclude that using a pillow along the body in combination with physical therapy reduces pain, increases lumbar range of motion and improves functional ability better than physical therapy alone.
Best body pillow recommendations
A review site owned by The New York Times, claims, after researching for several hours and interviewing physical therapists, they can recommend the best body pillows. One is down-free and comes from The Company Store.
The author claims this pillow provides gentle support. And as such, it’s best if you need some (but not a lot) of support for your shoulders, hips and ankles (those ankles can be downright pesky, especially if you have protruding, sharp and pointy bones). Furthermore, the author (assuming she tested it herself) asserts this one is soft and “sinky.”
It’s a coin toss whether or not the author means “silky” or that when pressure is applied to the body pillow, it sinks. Anyhow, the pillow by the Company Store is rather long–72 inches (6 feet).
So if you’re only, say, 5’0” what to do with all that extra cushioning? (Got a small dog … dog bed perhaps?) But if you are tall, the author claims this down-free pillow is better for aligning your knees and ankles.
Best Body Pillow: Is Memory Foam Better For Pain Management?
Not necessarily. Not at least according to this small-scale study. The study compares three different pillows: a standard feather pillow, memory foam, and one that’s orthopedically-designed. The best outcome for sleep quality, suggests the study, is an orthopedic pillow.
These days, there are several options for orthopedic pillows that do contain memory foam. But there’s a couple different styles of memory foam to consider, which will be described shortly.
If you are indeed a fan of memory foam (some people love it, others find it too squishy), the same reviewer recommends the Snuggle-Pedic Memory Foam Pillow. That’s because it’s super dense yet moldable. It just might indeed be the perfect pillow if you need extra support. Particularly, says the author, in the stomach, hip or knees.
Another supportive body pillow with memory foam the reviewer recommends comes from Coop Home Goods. It contains shredded memory foam. The texture of shredded memory foam looks like tiny bits of popcorn.
Proponents of shredded foam say it’s the best type of memory foam on the market. And therefore, it’s better than first-generation down-memory foam. Traditional memory foam isn’t as moldable as shredded foam.
So if moldability is critical to you, look for a pillow with shredded foam. Coop Home Goods shredded memory foam allows you to add or take away the amount of “popcorn bits” in your pillow.
(However, keep in mind that shredded memory foam pillows are inconsistent from one square inch to the next. Therefore, if you’re using one under your head, you may find yourself adjusting your sleep position more often.)
Sleeping with body pillow benefits
By now, the benefits of sleeping with a body pillow are hopefully quite obvious. You’ll sleep better. You’ll have less pain. And your spinal curvature may normalize. Also, the ligaments and tendons supporting your vertebra may have less stress on them.
Best body pillow for side sleepers
You might not even need to buy a special body pillow if you sleep on your slide. In fact, most people find that if they sleep with a thinner pillow under their head and a thicker (but not too thick) one in between the knees, that’s good enough to get a better night sleep.
If you’re a side sleeper and want to go high-end, the ComfiLife Orthopedic Knee Pillow seems like a good bet. On Amazon, it’s got well over 3,000 reviews, most of them 5-star. Reviewers who have tried different knee pillows contend that other knee pillows are either too small, too soft, or slip out. However, the heavy foam and durability of the ComfiLife knee pillow is ideal for hips and knees. Some reviewers claim it reduces sciatic pain.
Best body pillows for pregnancy
Remember the Snuggle-Pedic Memory Foam pillow from above? It’s a good choice for pregnant women as well. That’s because pregnant women need extra support around the hips and knees.