Healthy Sleeping Habits

How To Select the Best Pillow for Neck Pain, Based on Your Preferred Sleep Position

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/WestEnd61
Getting a good night’s sleep can be a pain in the neck—literally. While there’s no shortage of sleep struggles standing in the way of optimum zzz's (blue light from our phones or the anxiety about the state of the world, to name two), simply being too physically uncomfortable is a common obstacle that keeps us from getting the rest we need. In this case, it’s worth investigating a good pillow for neck pain—especially considering the possibility that the issue may not just fix itself.

"Neck pain can be exacerbated by a mattress or pillows that are unsupportive, but conversely, neck pain may make it challenging to have a restful sleep,” says Rebecca Robbins, PhD, sleep expert and postdoctoral researcher at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "If you have had your pillow for two or more years or your mattress for eight to 10 or more years, it may be time for a refresh."

Of course, investing in a brand new mattress can be a serious financial investment that you may not want to take on a whim, but a cushion to give you that extra bit of comfort and support? That's generally a more financially accessible option that can help ensure your spine is in alignment in order to prevent any strain. How? Well, the lumbar spine has a natural curve, and in certain sleep positions, the curve flattens. Pillows, then, can be useful for keeping your spinal position neutral.

"One principle that I focus on is a natural and ‘neutral’ spine position for normal sleep and function," John Cronin, MD, Medical Leader of Sleep and Respiratory Care at Philips, previously told Well+Good. "When it comes to pillow height, we don’t want to have the neck in too much, head forward, extension, head back, or a side-to-side tilt."

But since different sleeping positions will move the spine in different directions, getting a proper pillow for neck pain based on how you sleep is important. Below, get info on how to be mindful of different sleeping positions, and find the right pillows to fix neck pain.

Tips to choose the right pillow for side, back, and stomach sleepers

"All of us spend most of our night on either our back, stomach, or side," says Dr. Robbins. "As long as your mattress supports your head, neck, and spinal column in your preferred position, there is no position that is superior to another."

That bears repeating: No single sleep style or position is inherently "bad" for sleeping. What matters to most sleep professionals is that you’re able to fall asleep, and being comfortable is a major part of that. But of course, if neck pain is the problem you're having, you should know that certain positions can provide aggravation and strain on your neck.

"Sleeping in poor positions may cause prolonged stress to your neck," says Steven Knauf, DC, executive director of chiropractic and compliance at The Joint Chiropractic, previously told Well+Good. "For example, stomach sleepers often sleep with their head to one side so that they're able to breathe. Over time, this can stress muscles in the neck, which may cause stiffness or pain."

No matter your sleep style, the wrong pillow may be the culprit behind your nighttime pain that's keeping you wide awake.

That’s something to especially consider if your neck pain has long been unbearable, and you’ve yet to identify the cause. No matter your sleep style, though, the wrong pillow may be the culprit behind your nighttime pain that's keeping you wide awake. So, here's what to consider when looking for a new pillow for neck pain, based on your preferred sleep position.

1. Side sleepers

What kind of support do side sleepers need when it comes to alleviating neck pain? Height is really important when it comes to getting your spine in the right position. "Imagine lying on your side—you have a larger space to fill to support your head, neck, and spinal column in a straight line," says Dr. Robbins. "Therefore side sleepers need the most voluminous pillow."

2. Back sleepers

According to Dr. Robbins, "a back sleeper has a smaller space to support—essentially the nape of the neck." You might also need dual support when it comes to sleeping on your back if you’re experiencing any discomfort. A thinner pillow is ideal for getting the desired spinal shape for optimum sleep. And something like a Back Pain Relief Memory Foam Pillow ($24) for under your legs could help, too.

You could also go rogue and sleep flush against the mattress because, technically, that might be best for the neck. But if resting your head on a bedrock mattress is less than ideal, then something wafer-thin might suffice.

"If you go to sleep on your back, it's the most neutral for your spine—but if you're looking for a neutral spine we'd never use a pillow,” Bradford Butler, DC, chiropractor, clinic director of Oakland Spine and Physical Therapy, previously told Well+Good. "So if you're sleeping on your back and your head's elevated, you're basically putting your neck in a state of flexion." We definitely don't want a flexion, so short version, identify something with less fluff than a regular pillow.

3. Stomach sleepers

Since sleeping on the stomach can put strain on your spine and pressure on the joints on the back and neck, it's not the most advised position. If you insist on sleeping starfish style, though, Dr. Robbins suggests using a pillow that's very thin so the neck isn’t out of alignment. There are some specific pillows that cater to that need—and those of all other preferred sleeping positions.

5 pillows for neck pain that side, back, and stomach sleepers can enjoy, respectively

1. Best pillow for neck pain for side sleepers: Tempur-Pedic TEMPUR-Neck Pillow, $89

Side sleepers might have an easier time when it comes to pillow selection for combatting neck pain. Again, height matters a lot for keeping the head relatively elevated, and a slight curve keeps everything in flow. This squishy, memory foam Tempur-Pedic pillow is a great option for those who need a little extra oomph and a lot less achiness.

Shop Now: Tempur-Pedic TEMPUR-Neck Pillow, $89 for small, $99 for medium, $129 for large

2. Best pillow for neck pain for back sleepers: Elviros Cervical Memory Foam Pillow, Contour Pillows for Neck and Shoulder Pain, $50

To recap, back sleepers need something relatively flat and can forgo pillows entirely if they so choose. But if you're someone who loves a little bit of support—or a lot a bit of support—try a cervical memory foam pillow. Also, consider pairing it with a pillow under your knees to get the slight curve that's necessary for lumbar alignment.

Shop Now: Elviros Cervical Memory Foam Pillow, Contour Pillows for Neck and Shoulder Pain, $50

3. Best Pillow for neck pain for stomach sleepers: BLISSBURY Thin 2.6" Stomach Sleeping Memory Foam Pillow, $43

This can also be used as a thin pillow for back sleepers, but per its name, it's especially valuable for those who sleep on their stomach. This pancake-flat pillow is cushiony enough so you're not putting your head against something rock hard, and it's cooling for that constant fresh-side-of-the-pillow feeling. Shout out to the bamboo pillow case that helps your head feel less heated as you doze off.

Shop Now: BLISSBURY Thin 2.6" Stomach Sleeping Memory Foam Pillow, $43

4. Best pillow for neck pain for travel: Bullbird BR2 Travel Pillow, $60

"Sleeping sitting up" isn't really considered a sleep style. However, it's a necessary evil if you're embarking on any plane, train, or automobile trips. For that, we suggest the chiropractor-recommended travel pillow for snoozing easier on long trips. It'll keep your neck perfectly straight as you catch some much-needed zzz's en route to your location.

Shop Now: Bullbird BR2 Travel Pillow, $60

5. Best pillow for neck pain for lounging: Original Bones NeckBone Pillow, $15

This isn't necessarily a pillow for sleeping itself, but it's an affordable chiropractor-approved option for indulging in some (PG-rated) pre-bedtime activities. If you're reading, doomscrolling, or in the middle of a good Netflix binge, squishing up on something like this may keep neck aches away while you're propped up against a headboard.

Shop Now: Original Bones NeckBone Pillow, $15

Ultimately, if your neck pain really becomes unbearable, be sure to consult a medical professional to see if your sleeping habits are really to blame. And don't get discouraged if a pillow doesn't work for you at first. Ultimately, comfort is a personalized measure, and you might have to test the waters a bit to find something that really works. "Try, try try," Dr. Robbins says. "It's so important to lie down on a bunch to get a sense of what feels comfortable to you."

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