The Magic Number of Pillows a Physical Therapist Says Will Eliminate Back, Neck, and Shoulder Pain While You Sleep

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Anyone who has ever woken up to a stiff neck or sore shoulders is familiar with the common refrain, “you probably just slept wrong.” But what does that even mean? To find out, I spoke with Mark Huntsinger, PT, a physical therapist based in California, and he filled me in on the fact that the biggest culprit behind "sleeping wrong" is the number of pillows you use on a nightly basis.

“It’s cliché to say, but we do spend a third of our lives sleeping, so the position our body is in is super important," says Huntsinger. In a series of tutorials posted to TikTok, he shared his favorite hacks for "sleeping right," and explained that if you want to avoid back and neck pain, you'll need to enlist no less than four pillows.

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It may seem like a lot, but according to Huntsinger, your joints will thank you in the morning for having invested in a little extra padding. When you sleep with supportive pillows, every joint can rest in what physical therapists call a “loose packed position," which means there is little-to-no unnecessary pressure on them. Think: Bending your knees to 30 degrees of flexion or resting your shoulders slightly forward. Using pillows to achieve this type of position while you sleep is your best defense against stiffness because undue pressure on your joints and disks is what leads to rigidity and, eventually, potential injuries or issues with mobility.

So grab those four (yes, four) fluffers, and keep reading for how to position them so you can avoid "sleeping wrong" once and for all.

If you sleep on your back

Pillow one: This pillow should be tucked under your neck with the two bottom corners pulled onto the front of your shoulders, which will prevent it from rolling to either side during sleep. Position it so that your forehead is slightly more elevated than your chin, which will promote prime neck relaxation.

Pillow two: Grab your biggest, softest pillow and place it under your knees. The reason? The bent, elevated knee position helps to take the pressure off your lower back.

Pillows three and four: These pillows should be tucked under both elbows, elevating them slightly and preventing them from pulling up or down on your neck.

If you sleep on your side

Pillow one: Tuck this pillow between your head and shoulder so that your head and neck are resting comfortably.

Pillow two: Tuck the second pillow between your knees. This will safeguard you from rolling onto your stomach, and prevent your legs from tugging on your lower back.

Pillow three: This pillow is meant for cuddling. Not only is this pillow comforting on a cold and lonely night, but it also prevents you from rolling onto your shoulder.

Pillow four: This pillow should be placed behind you to prevent you from rolling onto your back (which, as we know, requires a whole different pillow formation) and keep you in your comfortable side-sleeping position.

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