Waking up with a stiff neck can put a kink in your whole day (pun intended). That radiating pain and limited range of motion makes everything from brushing your teeth to driving to work difficult and uncomfortable.
While a stiff neck can be caused by things like poor posture or muscle strains, an improper pillow height is one of the most common culprits. Using the right pillow height allows your head, neck, and spine to rest in a neutral alignment, preventing that dreaded morning stiffness. But should you go high or low with your pillow to ease neck pain? We’ve analyzed the pros and cons of both approaches so you can make the best choice for a pain-free night’s sleep.
The Case for a Low Pillow
Traditional wisdom states that the lower the pillow, the better for neck support and alignment. Placing your head just slightly elevated keeps it, your neck, and the rest of your spine relatively flat. This takes pressure off those sensitive neck vertebrae and muscles so they can fully relax as you sleep.
A low pillow also allows you to more easily assume side or belly sleeping positions. Sleeping on your side or stomach places your head at an angle to the mattress. A higher pillow can overextend your neck in these positions. But with a low, flatter pillow, switching between back, side, and belly sleeping is easier. Your neck stays cradled comfortably all night long.
Of course, switching to a low pillow can feel odd or uncomfortable if you’re used to something much loftier. You may need an adjustment period for your body get used to the new lower height. The lack of cushioning may also exacerbate pressure points in the shoulders or hips for side sleepers. So you have to assess if the benefits of better neck support outweigh these temporary discomforts.
The Perks of a Higher Pillow
While lower pillows are often touted as the ideal for neck issues, a higher pillow can also provide ample support. The key is finding the “just right” loft that suits your sleeping style, mattress, and body type. A higher pillow can improve spinal alignment by filling the space beneath your head created by your shoulders. This keeps your head from angling downward, preventing neck strain. The boost in height also props up side sleepers, keeping their spines straight rather than curved.
Additionally, many people simply find higher pillows more comfortable for supporting their head and neck as well as cushioning pressure points. Higher pillows made from malleable fill like memory foam or alternatives like shredded latex can be molded to provide customized support. As long as that loft isn’t so high it overextends your neck, a little extra height and cushiness could lead to a more relaxing and pain-free sleep compared to a thin, densely packed pillow.
Finding Your Perfect Pillow Height
So is a low or high pillow best to prevent or soothe neck stiffness and pain? As with many health issues, the answer tends to be: it depends. Everyone’s spinal alignment, sleeping style, mattress, and personal preferences are different. What provides healthy support for one person may create alignment issues for another.
Rather than automatically assuming lower is better for neck issues, finding your “Goldilocks” pillow height takes a bit of experimentation. Adjustable pillows like those with removable inserts allow you to tinker with height until you get it right. You may even want to invest in different pillows for back sleeping versus side sleeping if your needs change between positions. Pay attention to pressure points and how your neck feels in the morning when using a particular pillow. Adjust its thickness accordingly until you wake up pain and creak-free.
While not the most glamorous health topic, finding your perfect pillow loft is one the best things you can do for preventing that seized-up neck. Prioritizing healthy spinal alignment and neck support makes everyday activities far more comfortable. Give both lower and higher pillows a fair try to determine what works best for you. With the right fit, you’ll rest easy and wake ready to comfortably take on whatever the day brings.