The Best Pillows for Neck Pain

If you have neck pain, you’re in good company. One in four adults have sought care for neck/back pain, a Gallup poll shows. Your pillow and sleep position could be part of the problem. So is using the wrong pillow. Try these strategies to help find the right pillow for your sleep style.

Check Your Sleeping Position

The best positions if you have neck pain (or just want to avoid it) are sleeping on your back or on your side. If you sleep on your stomach, you may have neck pain because your neck is turned to the side and your back is arched. It may be worth trying other positions if neck pain is an issue.

Find the Right Pillow Shape

If you sleep on your back, look for a pillow with a cervical spine curve, meaning there’s a bit of a roll or bump under your neck and a flatter spot for your head.

If you sleep on your side, you need a slightly higher pillow to keep your head in line with your spine, and you may also want a pillow with a bump under your neck to support it.

If you sleep on your stomach, consider forgoing the pillow completely and lying directly on the mattress.

Don’t forget about travel. If you have the perfect pillow at home, what happens when you’re on the road or in the air? A U-shaped travel pillow can keep your head upright instead of angled to the side when you’re trying to sleep sitting up.

Add Other Pillows as Needed

If you sleep on your stomach, for instance, a flat pillow under your stomach might help keep your spine in line with your head and neck.

If you sleep on your side or back with a flat pillow, a second roll or rolled up towel under your neck could provide additional support. For side sleepers, putting a thin pillow between your knees also helps keep your spine in line with your head and neck.

Check Pillow Materials

The type of pillow and pillow fill are mostly personal preference, so you get to decide what works for you. Can’t find a curved pillow that you like? Consider trying a memory foam pillow, which compresses around your head and neck’s shape to keep them in line with your spine. Down pillows also conform, although feather pillows don’t keep their shape so well over time. If you have allergies, choose a pillow fill that doesn’t trigger them, and consider using a pillow cover that shields against allergens or dust mites.

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Pay Attention to Pillow Height

If neck pain is your problem, a flatter pillow may be the better option. In one study, higher pillows created more cranio-cervical pressure (that’s at the spot where the head and neck join) and a greater cervical angle, meaning your head isn’t lined up with your spine. This can result in pain and stiffness if your neck stays at that angle all night.

Give It a Test Drive

If possible while pillow shopping, lie down in your usual sleep position and put the pillow under your head. Take your time.

Do your head and neck feel supported? Or are they cranked at an angle that’s going to start hurting after a while? How do you feel about the pillow material and firmness? Is it too flat?

Replace Your Pillow as Needed

Maybe, once upon a time, your pillow was supportive. But over time, pillows compress and lose their shape and substance. In general, try to replace your pillows about every 1 to 2 years.

Get More (or Better) Sleep

It may not be your pillow that’s causing your neck pain. In one study, people with sleeping problems -- such as insomnia, waking too early, or restless sleep -- were more likely to report chronic pain after a year, compared with people who slept well. It might be that people with neck pain don’t get enough of the restorative sleep they need, or it might be that neck pain keeps people awake. But if you’re having sleep issues, seeking a solution to them may be a step toward less pain.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on February 12, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Gallup: “One in Four Adults Sought Care for Neck/Back Pain Last Year,” August 2016.

Harvard Health Publishing: “Say ‘good night’ to neck pain.”

University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia: “Good Sleeping Posture Helps Your Back.”

PeerJ: “Effect of pillow height on the biomechanics of the head-neck complex: investigation of the cranio-cervical pressure and cervical spine alignment."

Rebecca Robbins, PhD, post-doctoral researcher, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Cambridge, MA.

American Sleep Association: “Best Pillows.”

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