Bed Matters

Never shop alone for a pillow and mattress, experts tell Lea Wee. You need to lie down and get someone to check your spine alignment before you buy.

Sure, you can buy a pillow or mattress without trying it, but why would you want to?

The only way to find out if a pillow or mattress will suit you is to lie down on it, and for more than just a few seconds, say physiotherapists here.

Another thing - go shopping for these items with someone.

Lie on the pillow as you usually would when sleeping and ask the person whom you are with to tell you if the pillow or mattress supports your body's structure, said Ms Ngo Xueting, a senior physiotherapist from Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).

For people who tend to fall asleep on their backs, this means seeing if an imaginary horizontal line running through the ear is parallel to those running through the chest bone, hips and lower legs (below).

For someone who sleeps on his side, the horizontal line running through the nose should be parallel to that running through the rest of his body (below).

When the body is aligned this way, the muscles can relax and blood circulates properly during the six to eight hours of sleep, said senior physiotherapist Vernetta Wong from TTSH.

She said: 'Pain usually results when the body is misaligned or asymmetrical.' For instance, if the pillow is too soft and there is not enough support at the lordosis or inner arch of the neck, the person's neck becomes hyper-extended. This compresses the back of the neck and stretches the front of the neck.

Compression can lead to, among other things, the joints pressing on the nerves, which can result in pain, numbness and tightness, while overstretching can strain the muscles and cause pain.

There is no one ideal pillow and mattress for everyone. Ms Ngo said: 'A pillow which is comfortable for a person may not be so for another.' This is because there are variations to the S shape of each person's spine.

Ms Ngo said: 'Some have a short neck, while others have a long one. Some have larger lordosis in their necks and lower backs than others. Some may have tighter muscles at their neck and stiffer joints in their lower spine.'

It is only by lying on a pillow and mattress that a person can find out if he is suitable for his spinal curves.

In addition, couples who are buying a mattress for themselves should lie on it together. The mattress should not only suit them individually. They should test if the mattress creaks and disturbs the other person when one of them turns in bed, said principal physiotherapist Wendy Lim Hsin Wei from Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

A number of companies specialising in pillows and mattresses allow customers to try their products in their showrooms. They include Simmons, Slumberland, Sealy, Seahorse, Tempur and King Koil.

If you are not allowed to rest on pillows or mattresses before buying them, a general guide (other than walking away and going elsewhere) is to choose a pillow whose height is similar to that of your closed fist if you sleep on your back (left), said Ms Ngo.

For those who sleep on their side, the height of the pillow should be the horizontal distance between the base of one side of the neck and the tip of the shoulder on the same side (right).

But Ms Ngo said this guide works only on a firm pillow and mattress. She said: 'If a person prefers a softer pillow made of feather or cotton, he might need to buy a higher pillow or stack pillows to ensure that they are of the right height to support his neck and fill the arch at the back of his neck.'

Conversely, if the home mattress is too soft and the body sinks too much into it, the person may need to buy a lower pillow to support the neck.

To avoid a mismatch between the pillow and the mattress, it is best to buy them at the same time so you can be sure they complement each other in supporting your body, said Ms Ngo.

Ms Lim from Khoo Teck Puat Hospital said if people are not allowed to rest on a mattress before buying it, they should at least lean their weight on it to gauge its firmness. It should be firm enough to withstand their weight.

She said that a firm mattress is recommended for most people, though there is a lack of clinical evidence to support any particular type of mattress.

You know you have made a good buy if the pillows and mattresses make you feel comfortable, said Ms Yeo Xiu Lin, a senior physiotherapist from National University Hospital. But if you are not used to them after a few days, change them, she said.

If you still feel uncomfortable on them even though they seem to support the alignment of your body, this could mean that the discomfort has another cause, said Ms Wong. She said: 'In this case, it is best to seek the advice of a family doctor.'


Myth: If a pillow or mattress is good for my friend, it should be good for me.

Fact: Everybody has a different body structure. Hence, a pillow or mattress that is good for one person may not be good for another.

Myth: Contour pillows are better than normal pillows.

Fact: Some studies have shown that contour pillows, which are higher on one end and lower on the other, are not more comfortable than normal ones. Contour pillows are better only if they allow your body to be aligned.

Myth: The firmer the mattress, the better it is.

Fact: The mattress should be firm enough to provide support for the inner arch of the lower back so that the muscles there can relax. If the mattress is too soft, the back will lose its arch and become overstretched. Water beds are the extreme example. It is also not ideal to sleep on soft surfaces such as sofas, chairs and hammocks.

If the mattress is too hard, it will not be able to support the inner arch as the spine is flexible only to a certain degree. An extreme example of this would be sleeping on the floor. Lying on the floor also subjects the more bony parts of the body, such as the shoulder blade, sacrum and side of the ankles and heels, to more pressure and hence, discomfort.

Myth: The more coiled springs in my mattress, the better the mattress.

Fact: Theoretically, the more coiled springs in the mattress, the more support it provides to the body. But this does not necessarily mean, for instance, that a person's ear will always be in line with the rest of his body when he sleeps on his back. The best way to find out is to lie down on the bed and get someone to tell you if your body is aligned or not.

Myth: I can cure my neck or back pain with the right pillow or mattress.

Fact: Mattresses with therapeutic effects are usually used in hospitals to protect the spine or relieve pain.

They are subjected to control as medical devices by the Health Sciences Authority of Singapore (HSA). Medical devices are products which can treat or prevent a condition but, unlike medicine, they do not do so by changing a body function.

Most pillows and mattresses, however, are not medical devices, said the HSA. There is little good science behind their therapeutic claims.

The HSA advises the public to be wary of products which make miraculous claims or purport to produce amazing cures for medical conditions or general well-being.

Sources: Ms Ngo Xueting and Ms Vernetta Wong, senior physiotherapists from Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Ms Wendy Lim Hsin Wei, principal physiotherapist from Khoo Teck Puat Hospital


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.