Waking up with a stiff, sore neck is an unpleasant way to start the day. While there are many potential causes of neck pain, one of the most common culprits is actually right under your head – your pillow. The pillow that is supposed to cushion and support your head and neck while you sleep may be the very thing causing you discomfort instead.
When your neck is not properly supported and aligned during sleep, it can lead to muscle strains and joint stiffness. The way you sleep and the pillow you use can make a big difference in preventing neck pain. Understanding what type of sleeper you are, choosing the right pillow loft and material, and properly positioning your pillow are key steps to take for waking up pain-free.
Determine Your Sleep Style
The first step in choosing the right pillow is to know your own sleep habits and positions. The way you sleep determines the level of support and alignment your neck requires. Are you strictly a back sleeper, do you change positions often, or do you almost exclusively sleep on your side?
Back sleepers generally need a thinner pillow that supports the natural curve of the neck without propping the head up too much. This maintains the proper alignment of the head, neck, and spine. A pillow that is too thick will overextend the neck.
Side sleepers need a thicker pillow with more loft to fill the space between the ear and outside shoulder. This keeps the head and neck supported in a neutral position to prevent twisting. Using a pillow that is too flat or thin allows the head to drop down, straining the neck.
For people who change positions frequently throughout the night, a medium support pillow is usually the best option to allow comfortable sleep no matter which way you turn.
Choose the Proper Pillow Loft
Along with your sleep position, the loft or thickness of your pillow is crucial for proper support. Pillows come in a wide range of lofts, from slim to extra firm. Here are some guidelines for loft based on your sleep style:
- Back sleepers: Go with a low to medium loft of 2 to 4 inches. This cradles the head without over-angling the neck.
- Side sleepers: Look for a medium to high loft around 3 to 5 inches to adequately fill in the space between shoulder and head.
- Combo sleepers: A medium thickness of around 3 to 4 inches allows neck support in multiple positions.
- Stomach sleepers: Use a soft, thin pillow (2 inches or under) to prevent neck overextension. Or consider no pillow at all.
When trying out pillow loft, make sure your selected height keeps your neck aligned with the rest of your spine whether lying on your back or side. The loft should not be so high on any side that it tilts your head upwards and strains your neck.
The filling or interior material of the pillow also affects its supportiveness and comfort. Make sure the pillow keeps its shape through the night instead of flattening out and losing loft. Here are pros and cons of various pillow fill options:
- Memory foam: Excellent contouring support. Some retain heat.
- Polyester fiberfill: Light, airy, and affordable. Can flatten with use.
- Feather or down: Luxuriously soft but lightweight. Needs frequent fluffing to maintain shape.
- Latex foam: Contours with consistent spring back. Hypoallergenic.
- Buckwheat hulls: Firm feel. Adjustable by removing filling. Can be noisy.
Try out pillows with different interior fills to discover which offers you the best blend of support and cushioning comfort. A removable cover you can launder easily is also ideal for keeping your pillow fresh and free of irritants.
Get the Position Right
Now that you have the ideal pillow for your sleep style, make sure you use proper pillow placement each night. Having your pillow in the incorrect position can still put your neck at a bad angle and lead to pain.
Here are tips for optimal pillow placement in major sleep positions:
- Back sleepers: Place the pillow directly under your neck with the top edge at the level of your forehead. This should keep your head and neck aligned, without tilting up or down.
- Side sleepers: Position the pillow so it fills the gap between your ear and outside shoulder. It should support and level your head in this side-lying posture.
- Stomach sleepers: Use the thinnest pillow possible under your forehead only to prevent neck overextension. Or sleep without a pillow.
No matter your preferred position, make sure your pillow aligns your head and neck neutrally. Avoid using multiple pillows stacked up, as this can over-angle your neck.
Listen to Your Body
Your own comfort is the best gauge of whether your pillow is working for or against you. Pay attention to signals from your body like tossing and turning in the night or waking with stiffness, soreness, numbness, or tingling. This indicates your neck needs better support from your pillow.
Be prepared to experiment with different pillows until you find “the one” that eases rather than worsens any neck discomfort. The best pillow for neck pain may be different than what your partner prefers, so base your choice on your individual needs. Proper pillow support results in waking up rested and pain-free.
The source of neck pain can originate from many areas, including posture and sleeping positions. But one of the most overlooked yet controllable factors is your pillow. Choosing the proper pillow design, loft, material, and placement for your sleep style and body type can prevent the alignment issues that lead to those annoying kinks and stiffness. Prioritizing your neck support is essential for healthy rest, making sure your pillow doesn’t contribute to morning aches but instead helps provide a pain-free start to your day.