Your pillow should provide comfort and support, and allow you to wake up feeling rested and refreshed. So if you’re waking up with a sore neck and shoulders every morning, your pillow likely isn’t the one for you. The right pillow for you depends on how your body is formed, the weight of your head, and the position in which you sleep. Your pillow type can impact your comfort throughout the day, says Lee Hanses, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in Seattle.
“If you have an incorrect pillow and you put your neck in a suboptimal position for a prolonged period of time, that can create joint restrictions, can lead a joint to become too mobile, or set in the wrong space, making it harder for you to achieve a better posture throughout the day,” says Dr. Hanses. “Also, if you pick the wrong pillow and it leads you to sleep in the exact same position all the time, that can create its own problems. Being able to have a pillow that allows you to stay in a neutral alignment but also supports your body in any position is important, because that’s going to carry over into your daily routine and your daily posture.”
Keep in mind that shopping for a pillow can be a long process. “Sometimes it can take weeks to find the one that jives with your body the most,” says Dr. Hanses. Take your time to feel out a pillow and return it if it’s not working.
The position you sleep in should inform the kind of pillow you use. Below, find the best pillows for side and back sleepers.
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Best pillows for back sleepers
“If someone sleeps solely on their back, I would instruct them to get a little bit of a firmer pillow that is sized correctly to their body,” says Dr. Hanses. “Meaning a larger, thicker person who may tend to have a more forward head posture—and typically I’ll see this in more elderly and larger men especially, more of a forward head posture—to get a thicker pillow. Whereas someone who is smaller, more dainty, would probably need a flat pillow if they are a back sleeper.”
The biggest thing to consider as a back sleeper is that your chin isn’t pointing towards the ceiling. “Essentially, you don’t want too much back bending through your cervical spine as you’re sleeping,” says Dr. Hanses.
Parachute Down Alternative Firm Standard Pillow
This thick, firm pillow is perfect for larger people who sleep on their back. It’s filled with a super fine microfiber that mimics the warmth and fluffiness of natural down and is covered with a 100 percent sateen cotton shell. It’s available in standard and king sizes.
Wamsutta Duck Down Firm Support Back Sleeper Bed Pillow
This firm pillow is thinner than the Parachute option, making it great for smaller people. It’s filled with a soft duck down and has a 100 percent cotton cover. It’s available in standard/queen and king sizes.
Best pillows for side sleepers
“If someone typically sleeps on their side all the time, I would definitely instruct them to get a firmer pillow. And the [depth] is dependent on how wide their shoulders are,” says Dr. Hanses. “Someone who obviously has wider shoulders would need a thicker pillow because you need to cover the distance between your ear and the edge of your shoulder. You can picture if someone has a flat pillow but wide shoulders—their head is going to be tilted down, or they’re just going to be crunching on the shoulder that they’re laying on throughout the night, which could cause anything from nerve pain to muscle spasms. It can cause some joint pain as well.”
For side sleepers, Dr. Hanses says the more pillows the merrier.
“If you tend to be a side sleeper, get a smaller pillow that you can hug and get a thin pillow to slip between your knees when you’re on your side,” she says. “I personally sleep with a pillow between my legs when I’m on my side and it makes a huge difference in hip health. So hugging a pillow and putting one between your legs when you’re on your side can help with shoulder, hip, and knee health.”
Z Malouf Down Alternative High Loft Firm King Pillow in White
This firm, 7 inch tall memory foam pillow is good for people with wide shoulders. “Memory foam is great for people who are either back or side sleepers and never end up on their stomach,” says Dr. Hanses. The foam allows it to conform to weight and pressure. It’s also breathable to allow heat transference. This pillow is available in king.
Under The Canopy Gusset Cotton Percale Firm Side Sleeper Bed Pillow
Made with a 2 inch gusset, this firm, side sleeper pillow is great for those with more narrow shoulders. It has a 100 percent polyester fill and a 100 percent organic cotton percale cover. It’s available in standard/queen and king.
While you await your new supportive pillow, try out this neck and shoulder stretching routine:
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