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How to Position a Pillow for a Stiff Neck?

Waking up with a stiff neck can put a real damper on your day. That sharp, stabbing pain makes it hard to turn your head or get comfortable, and the ache lingers even after you get out of bed. Positioning your pillow properly at night can help prevent and alleviate neck stiffness. Read on to learn the ideal pillow setup for reducing neck pain and tension while you sleep.

Choose the Right Pillow Firmness

When selecting a pillow to avoid neck issues, firmness is key. A pillow that is too flat or too fluffy can throw your neck alignment out of whack. You want something in between that provides ample cushioning yet still supports the natural curve of your neck. Memory foam and latex pillows conform to the contours of your head and neck, making them excellent choices for side and back sleepers. For stomach sleepers, a thinner, softer pillow may work best so you don’t have to turn your head too much to breathe. In general, medium density foam or feather pillows provide the best blend of softness and resistance.

Match Pillow Height to Your Sleep Position

Pillow loft, or thickness, also factors into optimal spinal alignment. The proper height depends largely on your go-to sleep position:

Side sleepers: A thicker pillow—around 3 to 5 inches—helps fill the gap between your head and the mattress, keeping your neck long and straight.

Back sleepers: Try using a slimmer pillow about 2 to 4 inches thick. Too much height will tilt your head forward and strain your neck.

Stomach sleepers: Use the thinnest pillow possible or no pillow at all. Aim for less than 3 inches of loft so you don’t have to turn your head.

Try different pillow heights to find the one that feels most comfortable and allows you to keep your neck relatively neutral.

Use the Right Number of Pillows

In addition to thickness, the number of pillows you stack can impact neck support. Here are some tips:

  • If you sleep on your back or stomach, one appropriately lofty pillow is all you need. More than one risks bending your neck too far upwards or downwards.
  • For side sleeping, tucking a second slim pillow between your knees can help maintain spinal alignment and reduce stress on your hips and lower back.
  • Travel pillows and other specialty ergonomic pillows provide extra cushioning for the neck. If using one, you likely only need one standard pillow underneath.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Adjustments

It may take some trial and error to discover your ideal pillow setup. If you still wake up with neck pain after trying the above tips, make some adjustments. Try slightly adjusting pillow height, switching materials to alter firmness, or adding/removing pillows until you find the arrangement that works for you. You may also consider trying contours or cutouts that provide neck crevices for added support. Keep tweaking until your pillow stack keeps your neck comfortably aligned and relaxed.

Look at Your Mattress Too

A supportive pillow minimizes awkward neck bending, but your mattress also plays a key role in keeping your spine straight. If your bed noticeably sags or fails to keep your body on an even plane, this could contribute to alignment issues and morning stiffness. Inspect your mattress to see if it’s sagging or worn out. If so, it may be time for a new one. When mattress shopping, pay attention to spinal support and look for models that cater to your preferred sleep position.

Know When to Seek Treatment

Modifying your pillow setup is an easy at-home remedy for occasional neck pain. But if you wake up with a stiff neck day after day or the discomfort persists through the day, it’s time to call your doctor. Chronic neck stiffness—especially when accompanied by pain or muscle spasms—may indicate an underlying condition like arthritis, pinched nerve, or whiplash from injury. See your physician to identify and properly treat the root cause. For severe neck issues following an accident or trauma, you may benefit from physical therapy as well.

Proper pillow positioning goes a long way towards avoiding morning neck stiffness. Support your head and neck with pillows that boost alignment and comfort. Pair them with an equally supportive mattress, and you’ll rest easy knowing neck pain won’t sabotage your sleep or your mood in the morning.