Do Orthopedic Pillows Work for Neck Pain?

Poor sleeping posture often contributes to neck pain, which has led many people to try orthopedic pillows that promise to provide better support and alignment for the neck and spine during sleep. But do these specialized pillows really help with neck pain?

How Orthopedic Pillows Help

Orthopedic pillows are designed to cradle the head and neck in a more natural position that minimizes strain on the muscles and ligaments. This helps keep the spine properly aligned and avoids the neck hyperextension that can occur with flat pillows.

The contour shape of orthopedic pillows provides a sleeping surface that conforms to the curves of the neck and fills in the space between the neck and the mattress. This provides continuous support and prevents the “kinking” of neck that happens with gaps between a regular pillow and the mattress.

Orthopedic pillows are made of firmer materials that avoid flattening out during sleep. Memory foam is commonly used. This retains the shape of the pillow and provides lasting support compared to regular pillows that compress and lose their shape over the course of the night.

Some orthopedic pillows even have cutouts specifically made to cradle the contours of the neck and shoulder area. This targeted support keeps the neck in a more neutral position compared to how the neck has to curve when sleeping on flat pillows.

Evidence That Orthopedic Pillows Help Neck Pain

Several studies have looked at whether orthopedic pillows deliver meaningful improvements in neck pain. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science divided 44 patients with chronic neck pain into 2 groups, one sleeping on orthopedic pillows and one using ordinary pillows. After 8 weeks, the orthopedic pillow group showed significantly greater improvements in neck pain, neck disability, and sleep quality.

A small 2012 study tested custom-made 3D-printed orthopedic pillows based on individual subjects’ neck contours. The customized pillows reduced neck pain intensity by 60% over a 6-week period. Participants also reported improved sleep quality.

However, existing research on orthopedic pillows does have limitations, such as small sample sizes. More high-quality studies are still needed. Anecdotal evidence from orthopedic pillow users also suggests they provide relief, although results seem to vary by individual.

Factors to Consider

Not all orthopedic pillows are created equal. If you want to try one for neck pain, here are some factors to consider:

-Your specific sleep position – make sure to choose a pillow designed for that position, such as back or side sleeping. Stomach sleepers need a very thin pillow.

-Your body type and weight – lighter people may find a softer orthopedic pillow provides enough support. Heavier people likely need a firmer pillow.

-Your pillow filling preference – options like memory foam versus polyester versus latex have different properties.

-Proper pillow height based on your shoulder width and mattress. It should adequately fill the space between your neck and bed.

While evidence suggests orthopedic pillows can help relieve neck pain for many people, there are no guarantees they will work perfectly for every individual. It may take some trial and error to find the right match. Pay attention to whether you feel increased neck support and alignment. If your pain doesn’t improve within a few weeks, an orthopedic pillow may not be the solution for you. Consulting a physical therapist or doctor is recommended as well. But orthopedic pillows remain one of the easiest and most affordable ways to improve neck comfort and potentially reduce pain during sleep.