Why do We Use Pillows?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

One of the main reasons we use pillows has to do with the complicated relationship between our heads, necks, and spines. When a person is walking upright during the day, the head and neck are held in vertical alignment over the spine by a complex arrangement of muscles and tendons. During sleep, however, many of these muscles relax, causing the head to fall backward or forwards. This places additional stress on the neck muscles and vertebrae, which in turn triggers stiffness in the back muscles and spine.

Using the proper pillows helps to keep the spine in alignment.
Using the proper pillows helps to keep the spine in alignment.

The solution to this painful situation is to elevate the head and neck until they are back in alignment with the spine, regardless of sleep position. The easiest way to achieve this supported alignment is to use a pillow to achieve the proper angle. When the head, neck, and spine are back in alignment, a person should be able to breathe easier and have improved circulation.

Neck pillows can provide support while sitting in a vertical position.
Neck pillows can provide support while sitting in a vertical position.

There are several different forms of supportive pillows, all designed to address different alignment issues. An orthopedic pillow is used by most sleepers at night to keep the head, spine, and knees supported in a comfortable sleep position. Some people use pillows between their knees or thighs to provide support for the lower back and hips. A lumbar pillow can also fill the gap between the lower back and a chair or mattress.

A throw pillow with tassels.
A throw pillow with tassels.

A special neck or cervical pillow can also provide additional support while resting in a vertical position. The cervical pillow wraps around the person's neck to push the head slightly forward. Some users find that an improperly sized cervical pillow can cause the user's head to fall too far forward, affecting breathing and creating more strain on the back of the neck or upper back.

A bed with pillows on it.
A bed with pillows on it.

Historically, the first cloth pillows were enjoyed almost exclusively by royal families and other wealthy citizens. Lower-class citizens and peasants may have fashioned rudimentary pillows from straw, but more likely than not they used their own arms to provide support while they slept. Widespread use of pillows was not possible until the Industrial Revolution made the wholesale production of cloth an affordable reality.

Pillows provide support during sleep.
Pillows provide support during sleep.

Certain ancient cultures did not use pillows made from soft cloth and stuffing, however. Pillows were often carved from hard blocks of stone or wood, which did keep the sleeper's head and spine in alignment but could not claim comfort as one of its advantages. Thankfully, modern pillows are available overstuffed with down feathers, foam rubber, therapeutic memory foam, or buckwheat hulls. The trick is to find the appropriate number of pillows to achieve an ideal alignment for a comfortable night's sleep.

A small pillow behind the back adds support when sitting for long periods.
A small pillow behind the back adds support when sitting for long periods.
Standard bed pillows are about 20 inches by 26 inches.
Standard bed pillows are about 20 inches by 26 inches.
The number of pillows needed for a good night's sleep varies with each individual.
The number of pillows needed for a good night's sleep varies with each individual.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Please advise me how to use sofa pillows correctly. Meaning that when we sit on sofa how to keep it, (meaning that person who sits, how to handle it, like keep it to the side, keep it on the lap -- like that).


I was watching a movie the other day which took place in China. They showed Chinese pillows and the pillows were made of stone!!! It was basically a block of stone with a curve in the center for the neck to sit on.

Do Chinese continue to use these pillows? How come we use soft pillows and they use hard ones?


@whiteplane-- You can use it however you like but it's designed to support pregnant women during night's sleep. It also depends what kind of pregnancy pillow you have because there are different kinds.

When I was pregnant, I used a snoogle which is basically a super long pillow that's more narrow than a regular pillow. You wrap this around your body and not only does it support your belly, but it also supports your back and spine. I usually used the very end of the pillow as a knee pillow. I would place it between my legs to keep my spine straight.

I think pregnancy pillows are great. I would have continued using mine if my husband didn't complain about how much space it takes up in the bed.


I've noticed that I get the best sleep when I pull the pillow a little down and also let my shoulders rest on it. I feel like it supports my neck and spine a lot better.

If I put my head on the pillow from the neck up, my head tends to fall forward when I'm sleeping which gives me jaw pain. I also have teeth grinding problems. But when I rest my shoulders and my neck on the pillow, my neck stands straight all night and I don't experience any of these problems.


My friend laughed at me for not knowing how to use a body pillow. I bought it for a different reason than most people do.

I have two regular sized pillows on my twin bed, but I tend to end up sleeping in the middle, and this means my head winds up in the gap between the pillows. I saw a body pillow in a store, and it seemed like the perfect solution for filling the gap.

Now, I can roll all over my bed during sleep and still have support for my head. When my friend saw that I had the pillow at the head of the bed, she laughed and asked me if I knew what it was for, but when I told her how I was using it, she thought it was a pretty good idea.


It amazes me that even my dog knows how to use a pillow. However, she doesn't always choose the softest object. She works with what she has.

I once found her lying in the front yard with her head resting on a brick! I don't understand this, because she has a perfectly good pet bed in the carport.

I suppose that when she lies on the pet bed, she doesn't have a raised area for her head. Maybe using a brick pillow is actually more comfortable than lying with her head straight.


@lighth0se33 – Those home décor pillows can be useful for when you are just lounging on the couch watching TV. I have a couple of small pillows that came with my sofa, and I prop one between my knees for support. It makes me much more comfortable.

My knees are kind of bony, and they knock together uncomfortably when I lie on my side. Decorative pillows are just the right size for my knee.

My sofa is kind of short in the back, so I sometimes use one of the decorative pillows to prop my head up. The sofa is backed against the wall, so I just put the pillow on top of it and lean back. Otherwise, my head would have no support.


I've never been big on decorator pillows, but it seems that they are very popular. I bought a comforter set for my bed, and three little pillows came with it that I never use.

One is cylindrical, and the other two are small and round. They are encased with custom fit covers that match the comforter.

I have just tossed them into my closet. I never even make my bed, so I don't care about putting them on it for display. I have no use for them at all.


My mother in law recently gave me this pregnancy pillow but I have no idea how to use it. This is my first kid and she sent it through the mail and it has no instructions so I am at a total loss, all I have got is the label.

So can anyone tell me how to use a pregnancy pillow? Do I use it when I sleep or when I am sitting around? I want to thank her for the gift but so far I haven't even used it.


I know a few people who never use pillows. They either sleep on their arms or they lie their head directly on the mattress.

It doesn't sound very comfortable to me but I guess that is how they like it. It does seem strange though. Every where you go there are pillows on everything. Who could possibly get used to not having them?


I have a terrible, terrible time finding a comfortable pillow. I move around a lot in my sleep, sometimes sleeping on my back and sometimes on my side. It's difficult to find a pillow that supports my head and neck in both positions.

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