If you frequently wake up with a stiff, sore neck, your pillow may be to blame. The right pillow can help keep your neck aligned and relieve pressure points that lead to pain and stiffness. With so many pillow options out there, how do you know which one is best for neck pain? Here’s what to look for when choosing a pillow to prevent and reduce neck pain.
Evaluate Your Sleep Position
The first step in your pillow search is identifying your primary sleep position – whether you most often sleep on your side, back, stomach, or a combination. Your sleep position determines the level of support and alignment you need from a pillow.
Side sleepers generally need a thicker pillow to fill the space between their ear and outside shoulder. This keeps their head level with their mattress and spine neutral. Look for a medium to high loft pillow about 3 to 5 inches thick. Side sleepers often do well with memory foam, down, or down alternative pillows.
For back sleepers, a thinner, low-loft pillow is better to allow their head to nestle down without arching their neck up. Look for a pillow about 2 to 4 inches thick with light to medium density. Back sleepers tend to prefer down, down alternative, or thinner memory foam pillows.
Stomach sleepers need very thin, almost flat pillows to prevent their head from angling up and back. Try a pillow under 2 inches thick to keep their spine aligned. Avoid thicker pillows that elevate their head.
Combination sleepers who change positions can benefit from an adjustable pillow with removable fill allowing you to customize thickness and support.
Consider Fill Material
The filling or interior material impacts a pillow’s properties like density, firmness, moldability, and breathability. Consider these common fill types when choosing a pillow for neck pain:
- Memory foam contours closely to the head and neck while cushioning pressure points. Some may retain heat.
- Down provides softness, with lightweight, breathable materials. Higher quality down is more resilient.
- Down alternative polyester is hypoallergenic but retains more heat. Less expensive than down.
- Latex resists dust mites, is responsive yet firm, and breathes well. It can feel springy.
- Microbeads conform closely but tend to flatten quickly over time. They can retain heat and emit noise.
- Polyester fiberfill or foam provides general support at lower costs, but tend to compress over time.
- Water pillows with internal water chambers can be adjusted for soft to firm support. They conform to the neck and head.
- Buckwheat hulls offer firm yet adjustable support. The hulls are noisy when shifting and have a distinct odor.
Pay Attention to Pillow Height
Pillow loft or height is crucial for spinal alignment. As mentioned earlier, side sleepers need thicker pillows around 3 to 5 inches. Back sleepers need thinner pillows approximately 2 to 4 inches. Stomach sleepers need very flat pillows under 2 inches thick.
A good way to determine proper pillow height is to lay on your back holding the pillow against your neck. Your neck should be neutrally aligned, not bending up or down. Have someone look to ensure there’s no visible arching or strain. The right pillow height will keep your spine straight.
Consider Contouring and Shape
Pillows with contours and shaped cutouts can provide extra support and comfort for neck pain sufferers. Here are some options:
- Cervical pillows have indented centers to cradle your neck while keeping it aligned with the rest of your spine. They come in different heights.
- Contour pillows are shaped with an arched crest for head and neck support and a lower depression for shoulder alignment. They promote side sleeping.
- Wedge pillows gently slope up, letting you sleep at an incline to take pressure off your neck. They effectively prop up your torso.
- Travel pillows or neck rolls have cylindrical shapes that wrap around the neck for chin-to-chest support during travel or regular sleep.
Try Testing in the Store
Whenever possible, test pillows in person before buying. Bedding stores should have floor models available to try. Mimic your sleep position on the pillows. Evaluate how your neck feels. See if the pillow adequately supports your neck’s natural curve without over-arching or straining it. The right pillow should feel comfortable keeping your neck straight. Don’t settle for a pillow that makes your neck hurt. Testing before buying can prevent mistakes and returns.
Give It Time
It may take some trial and error to find your ideal pillow for neck pain relief. And once you find a contending pillow, give yourself at least two weeks to adjust to it before making final judgments. Your body needs time to get used to a new pillow’s feel and support. So don’t give up too quickly. Make sure to break it in for several nights through a full sleep cycle before deciding if it’s the right fit.